Perhaps it was the sheer volume of noise in the big A -- a wall of sound crashing out toward center field -- that knocked the ball out of Al Bumbry's glove.

Perhaps it was Richard Nixon, wildly waving his red hankerchief above his personal sign that exhorted California to "Never Give UP!" which kept the Angels fighting like devils.

Whatever the cause, the Baltimore Orioles missed joining the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series by a fraction of a milisecond tonight -- the amount of time it took a line drive to dance its way into and out of, Bumbry's mitt.

And then, suddenly, they were struck in Anaheim with the Angel blues again.

The Orioles still head this American League playoff two games to one after their shattering 4-3 loss in the bottom of the ninth to the Angels tonight.

But, this Baltimore team of youngsters and semistars which has never felt the crushing, heart-attack pressure in the chest that comes with October baseball, will have to face a task that has never confronted them before.

This night will always be concentrated in memory into one instant. With one out in the ninth, and the O's ahead, 3-2, the Angels on first and second base, former Oriole Bobby Grich hit a smoking liner to center field off Bird reliever Don Stanhouse.

Bumbry, speeding in, gloved the ball slightly above his knees. The Angel on second base, Rod Carew, had blundered horribly, wandering far off the base. "I was a dead duck," said Carew.

The most likely "perhaps" of this mortar attack of a game with its constant bomb bursts was that Bumbry, cutting his eyes to the wayward and sinning Carew, took his eyes off the ball.

Just as likely, to tell the truth, it was that vortex of noise, swirling from all directions toward Bumbry in the heart of the diamond. More sophisticated fans than those in Orange County might have gasped, held their breath, aware of their team's predicament.

But the throng of 43,199 saw only a vicious line drive, not its destination. So they bellowed like souls released from torment.

Bumbry might have saved himsefl what may be a lasting torment had he simply plucked the ball quickly and fired it to second for a force play on Brian Downing, who was confused and stock still between bases.

To be sure, Carew would still have scored. He was so far off base, so gruesomely out of position, that there was no contesting his sprint to the plate to tie the game.

However, had Downing not been at second, all might have been different. When the next man, Larry Harlow, sliced the second pitch from Stanhouse into left field for a hit, there would have been no one to dash to home plate where a dozen Angels waited and the field was washed with celebrating fans.

This was a night for the revenge of ex-Orioles, especially several who are not members of the Earl Weaver Fan Club.

Harlow, who started tonight and got the game-winning hit, was released by the Birds early this year.

Harlow never hit the home runs that Weaver cherishes. "He always wanted me to pull the ball. It just totally tangled my mind," Harlow said. "Over here they have me slapping the ball everywhere." So, Harlow has hit .346 since July 6, and is starting in the playoffs.

His crowning blow tonight -- scored generously as a "double" -- was the sort at which the Orioles curled their lips.

"Weaver is one of the better managers," said another ex-Oriole. Don Baylor, who creashed a 430-foot solo homer off Bird starter Dennis Martinez, who lasted 8 1/3 innings. "But he might have outsmarted himself tonight. Maybe if they still had a Paul Blair to put in for defense, that ball would have been caught."

This win was doubly sweet for California because they think they have sensed a growing Oriole cockiness.

"Sure, they just knew they had it all wrapped up after they went ahead, 3-2," said Baylor. "I thought they were counting it over before it really was.

"Grich and Harlow and I would really love to stick it to them three in a row."

The entire momentum of this game swung in the O's direction throughout the middle innings, creating a false sense of security.

"If that ball stays in Al's glove," admitted Weaver, "we're on our way home right now."

As usual, Dan Ford drove in a run in the Angel first inning for a 1-0 lead, the third straight game in which he has done that.

No sooner had a Ken Singleton double, followed by consecutive- pitch singles by Eddie Murray and Lee May, tied the game, 1-1, in the fourth off starter Frank Tanana, than Baylor unloaded his blast to put the Angels up, 2-1.

But then, all the breaks started slidding the Orioles' way. This series, slowly and inexorably, seemed to be drawing to its close.

In the sixth inning, Singleton singled, rounded second much too far on a Murray single and fell flat on his face between bases. He should have been trapped off second by yards. Stumbling and staggering back to the bag like a man being strafed with machine gun fire as he dives for his foxhole, Singleton somehow beat the Angels all-thumbs attempt to trap him.

When Singleton scored on Doug DeCinces' sacrifice fly to tie the game, the mob in the Big A seemed to lose the faith. They overlooked the way the Birds ended that sixth as third base coach Cal Ripken, with bases loaded, sent Murray to his demise at the plate on a short fly to center field.

Minutes later, it seemed the Orioles were poised to fly into the World Series on the wings of an old crow. In the seventh, Bumbry -- how close he was to being the hero who scored the winning run -- tripled to deep right-center.

Inch hitter Terry (Crow) Crowley, who ranks among the top dozen in history in pinch-hitting batting average, slapped a single back through the box past reliever, and potential loser Don Aase -- who became the eventual winner -- for what looked increasingly like a championship- clinching RBI.

How could one run look so large? Because of young Martinez, the 24-year-old Nicauraguan who, after early troubles, had retired 10 straight men entering the ninth.

What matter that Martinez had been the one most star-crossed Oriole all season, the pitcher who lost eight of his last nine decisions despite repeatedly decent outings.

When Nixon, who has attended more than 20 games here this season, who was doused with Angel champagne in the team's division clinching celebration, and who personally tied his "Never Give UP" slogan to the mezzanine, took out his red hankie to start the ninth, the crowd took its lead.

After all, they had given both the man and his message a standing ovation before the game.

When Baylor flied out on the first Martinez pitch, a red flag hardly seemed the right thing to wave in front of the young Nicuaraguan bull.

But Carew followed with a rope double up the gap in left and the wheels spun as the tense and the incredible volume mounted.

Weaver will be second-guessed for waving in Stanhouse, the winner of Game No. 1, and the saver of Game No. 2. Hadn't the man heard about pushing his luck? What about all those rested arms of Stewart, Stoddard and Tippy Martinez?

"I thought Stanhouse was the man to put us on the plane," said Weaver, "And he might have been. . ."

This was the night for might have beens.

What if, after Carew doubled, Stanhouse had not gone into his customary nibbling routine to the first hitter -- Downing -- and walked him on a 3-2 pitch.

How many times in two years has Stanhouse walked the winning run to base? And how many times could he escape?

Weaver tried to take that final huge "what if" off Bumbry's shoulders by saying, "he made a helluva effort. He'll get criticized for it. But he never should be."

Angel Manager Jim Fregosi said simply, "Bumbry should have caught it."

However, if anyone here, might have doubts of that. Who totally doubts the collective will?

A wall of noise may be invisible. Tonight it smashed a ball from Bumbry's hands as surely as if he had been bashed with a bat.

The question that remains is elementary. When the stark white ball fell unexpectedly to the green turf of the pristine Big A, did the Baltimore Orioles improbable dream begin to fall as well?