To hit or not to hit -- that is the question.

It's still Act One, but the Orioles are already asking themselves existential questions. And after the curtain went down tonight on their 18th loss of the season, 6-3, to the Texas Rangers, Manager Earl Weaver delivered a pained Soliloquy:

"We got 10 hits and three runs . . . something is lacking somewhere . . . Of course, one guy got four of 'em . . . The more opportunities we get . . . oWe just runout of hitters, run out of guys that are hitting . . . Can't give up . . ."

The Orioles are in a deep orange funk. They left 12 men on base tonight, and two more in the trainer's room with injuries. Starting pitcher Scott McGregor, who was just beginning to come around after suffering from tendinitis in his left knee by a line-drive off the bat of Texas shortshop Pepe Frias in the top of the third inning.

When McGregor lift to go to the hospital for X-rays, the Orioles were leading 2-0.By the time the X-rays proved negative, the Orioles were irretreviably behind. (John Lowenstein bruised his left hip and right shoulder trying to make a catch in the third inning and will go for x-rays Thursday.)

In the top of the fourth, McGregor was replaced by losing pitcher Paul Hartzell, who was called up from Rochester exactly a week ago. Richie Zisk singled to center; designated hitter Dave Walton walked; Jim Sundberg singled to right and Dave Roberts hit his first career grand slam over the left-field wall.

It had come to this. At precisely 8:52 p.m. Jim Palmer, whom Weaver likes to call Cy Old, was called out of the bullpen, to make his fourth relief appearance since 1969.

At 8:55, Palmer, who had taken himself out of the starting rotation because of bad back, gave up the fifth run of the inning on a solo home run by Mickey Rivers, to make the score 5-2.

"It was a good time to get him in," said Weaver, who expects Palmer to start on Tuesday. "He was going to throw today anyhow. I feel a little better about him."

Palmer lasted 3 1/3 innings, giving up six hits, including two home runs (he has given up nine so far this year) before being taken out of his misery in the top of the seventh by Dave Ford.

The chilly crowd of 16,762 must have warmed the cockles of Palmer's heart when they booed him as he left. He retorted with a mock heroic wave of the mind and tip of the cap.

The real heroics of the evening belonged to catcher Dan Graham, starting his second game in a row gehind the plate. Graham must have memorized all those stories about the hot, young, rookie, you just can't sit down.

Graham, who went three-for-four Tuesday night, with three Rbi, went four-for-five tonight, and drove in the first of the Orioles' runs. He is now hitting .615.

Graham led off the eight with a single to right.After Terry Crowley popped to Roberts at third base, Doug DeCinces singled to center and Lee May, pinch-hitting for Kiko Garcia, singled off Roberts' chest to load the bases.

Ranger starter and winner Gaylord Perry (282nd victory) got behind Rich ed at three straight strikes for the second out.

Al Bumbry drew his 14th walk of year (he had 43 all last season) to force Graham in with the Orioles' third run, and Perry out.

Sparky Lyle came in and took the spark out of the Orioles, forcing Pat Kelly to bounce out to short.

In the ninth, Graham had a chance to turn the tragedy to comedy. Eddie Murray walked and Gary Roenicke was safe on Pipe Frias' second error of the night at shortstop to bounce into a double play.

"Something's missing," Graham said. "But what do I know?" We could use a little bit of a spark. We could use a three-run home run. That's what the team specialized in last year. One of these nights, it will be like old times."

Old-timer Mark Belanger said, "Let's put it this way: in a situation like this, when things are not going your way everything stands out -- the missed play, the mental error, the bad pitch. When you win, you forget all those mistakes. No one sits in front of their locker saying, 'If only I had done this'. There's no change you can make. You just have to go back and try again."