On Sunday, an enraged Graig Nettles smashed every light bulb in the tunnel from the New York Yankee dugout to the locker room.

Tonight, he turned out the lights on the Baltimore Orioles.

On Sunday, Nettles was furious at Dick Howser for pinch hitting for him three days running -- and indignity he had never suffered in eight years in pinstripes.

Tonight, he answered charges that age tarnished his skills and his desire by clobbering a home run and making three superb defensive plays -- two in the ninth inning -- as the Yanks beat the O's, 3-2, before 21,419 in Yankee Stadium.

Nettles was constantly at the center of a battle of southpaws in which Tommy John bested Mike Flanagan.

His blast into the right-field pavilion opened the scoring off the 1979 Cy Young Award winner, and his leaping grab to save a game-typing Baltimore run in the ninth preserved the one-run New York lead provided by Rupert Jones, RBI single off Flanagan in the eighth.

The old, rich Yankwwa, who by rights should be ready to pull up their rockers and rest by the fire, demonstrated tonight why they may cause the Orioles considerable torment this season.

Nettles, 35, and John, 36, along with other over-35s like Lou Piniella, Luis Tiant and Rudy May, are perfect symbols of the current mood of resolve among the '80 Yankees.

Nettles plays baskeball the old way -- for blood. Someday they'll have to tear the uniform off him. But not yet.

"I just couldn't hold it in any longer," Nettles said tonight of his explosion the day before. "Yeah, maybe someday they'll tear the uniform of me, but yesterday, I tore it off myself.

"I would have hoped for better understanding after all the years here," continued Nettles, whose job is being threatened by career journeyman Eric Soderholm, one of the latest of owner Steinbrenner's acquisitions.

"This never would have happened if Billy (Martin) were here.He'd remembered all the times I played hurt for him, and all the things I did so I could play.

"I can't blame Dick.I guess I just better start doing things to impress people around here," said Nettles, who entered the game with a .147 average and three errors.

"Dick used good judgement in not making a big deal out of this. And I used good judgement on Sunday by gettin away from the park and shutting my mouth before I said things I'd regret."

This evening, Nettles spoke with deed.

With one on and none out in the ninth, Nettles made an acrobatic scoop-and-throw to nail Eddie Murray on a swinging dribbler.

Then, he leaped high, as though sprung off a trampoline, to snare a Gary Roenicke liner that would have been a scored-tying double into the left-field corner. Rich Gossage then entered to get the final relief out for John's win.

The Orioles, having now lost three in a row and standing even with the Yanks at 5-6, sat in a silence worthy of September.

"Way to smoke the ball, Rhino," said one Roiole voice to Roenicke.

"He sure as hell went way up the ladder in a hurry," Roenicke remarked. "He always seems to make the big plays to kill us. Only one or two other guys in the league have the reflexes to make a play like that."

The Yankees know how sweet those words would be to Nettles, their inveterate clubhouse spokesman in standing up to Steinbrenner with their bad tidings. Now, after only 73 RBI last year, Nettles knows it would cause no front office tears if Soderholm took his job.

"When you're young, they look at you to see if you're a suspect or a prospect," sneered Nettles. "When you turn 35, they start looking at you the same way. And they start asking the same questions, like 'What did you weight today?'"

What did you weigh today? Nettles was asked.

"Don't know," he said. "I had somebody weigh in for me."

Most of the key Yankees know that the harsh, questioning eyes are on them again, just as when they were 18.

"Graig isn't the only one," said May. "Reggie (Jackson), Bob (Watson) . . . yeah, we're all being judged for the first time in a long time. (

"People say we're men playing a kid's game," May went on. "We know that's backward. We're kids playing a man's game.

"My wife says, 'Rudy, when are you going to stop acting like a kid and be an adult?'

"I tell her, 'Carol, I'll get grown up when I'm 40. Then I'll be an adult. This is no time for me to start acting old. If you know what's good for both of us, you'll see I'm right.'"

The veteran Yanks, especially those who remember the championship years of 1977 and '78, are plainly bitter over the fickle public's readiness for harsh judgements.

"I've gone from being unnoticed, to getting national attention for my plays in the ('78) World Series, and now, just a year later, everybody's ready to count me off, just like they did (Carl) Yastrzemski and (Willie) McCovey and every other player at 35," Nettles said.

"It's disgusting. People don't want an accurate view of you. They just want a new one.

"My reflexes are as good as they ever were. The plays I made tonight were as good as ever -- especially the last one. I guess, as you get older, you can jump higher."

It was the old Yanks making their mark tonight. While John held the O's to three hits -- both runs scoring on infield grounders -- it was veteran Watson chipping in an RBI to add to Nettles' homer and Jones' humble game-winning ground-ball hit that found its way through the slew-footed Oriole right side.

In the Yankee clubhouse, old-timer Jim Spencer was wrestling with Piniella, trying to get the latter's batting stance back to the proper feel. Never to old to learn.

"We're not taking the money and resting on our laurels," said May. "We tell each other, 'The man's payin' us good, so let's play.' But people don't want to believe that."

"The trick," said Nettles, "is not to hear all the voices around you."

But that's hard.

"Graig hasn't lost a step," May said, and grinned. "He never had one." Then, joking aside, May added, "Puff (short for Puff the Magic Dragon) is in his own . . . one of the finest ever. He doesn't have to answer to anybody."

Perhaps he shouldn't have to. But at 35 in baseball. . . .