Dick Howser felt badly enough about losing. He felt worse about seeing his team's lead over the Baltimore Orioles sink in 2 1/2 games.

But he felt worst when the subject of Ron Guidry came up. "I don't know what's wrong with him," Howser said quietly. Then he began muttering softly about line drives and bloop singles.

Then: "I'd rather not comment. I wish I knew what was wrong. We need him. This is a ball club that needs good pitching." His voice trailed off.

The Yankees need an effective Guidry if they are to have any chance of winning the American League East. He has been baseball's best pitcher since the middle of 1977. More important he has been baseball's best second-half-of-the-season pitcher with a 37-9 second-half record the last four years.

Not this year. He is now 3-5 since the All Star break. He has lost three in a row, matching a career nadir. Tonight, he left trailing, 3-2, after 3 2/3 innings, and it could have been 8-2 if his outfielders had not been spectacular.

"It's frustrating," Stan Williams, the Yankee pitching coach, said. "You just never know what he's going to do when he goes out there. One time he's overpowering, the next he's rocky.

"We've talked about it. The key is his slider. When it's breaking down, he's supertough. When it breaks flat, he gets hit. Tonight, it looked like it was breaking flat."

If Guidry had any thoughts on the situation or on his performance, he wasn't talking about it. When he emerged from the training room 45 minutes after the game had ended, he waved questioners away.

"Nothing," he said, "I don't want to talk." He spoke quietly and he was polite as he turned people away. He just had nothing to say.

"There's nothing wrong with his arm," Williams said. "There's nothing wrong with his head either. Part of the problem is that people expect him to be the Guidry of '78 when he was unhittable.That year was an exception, not the rule. All we can do -- me, Dick, Ronnie, everyone -- is hope he hits his stride next time out."

On a pitching staff that is sending a 37-year-old, a 39-year-old and a 41-year-old to the mound, Guidry must be the stopper in September. Those who were willing to be civil to visitors in the Yankee clubhouse did not argue with that premise.

"No question we need Ronnie pitching well," said Reggie Jackson, gracious in defeat as in victory.

"It's hard for me to say how important it is to us physchologically because he got hit hard tonight and we still battled back."

"He's got to be our big man in September," Oscar Gamble said. 'We need him to go out there and win five or six in a row. Everyone in here knows he can do it. He's still the big guy on this staff. A month from now everyone will be talking about how he's pulled us through. Just watch."

Those who watched tonight were not rushing off to bet the ranch on Guidry (12-9) or the Yankees the rest of the way. His fast ball had as much velocity as ever but, time after time, he grooved pitches and the Orioles teed off on him.

"I thought he pitched good," Earl Weaver said. "Maybe we just got lucky."

Luck had nothing to do with Guidry allowing 11 men of the 22 he faced to reach base while two others were retired on circus catches.

"I don't know how it's gonna affect them psychologically if he doesn't win," Weaver said. "What difference does it make? Winning and losing is all that counts, not thinking you're gonna win or lose. They need him, sure; he's a good pitcher."

"I'll tell you one thing," Williams said. "If Ronnie gets going, we'll be tough to catch." He did not say what would happen if Guidry doesn't get going. He didn't need to.