When the Baltimore Orioles flew out of Seattle early Wednesday morning, they were in a bleak mood furious that for two nights in a row the Mariners had prevented them from moving into first place.

However, by the time the Birds entertain the California Angels Thursday, it's almost certain that the true message of their West Coast trip will have sunk in: mission accomplished.

That junket to California, Oakland and Seattle was simply the final stage of a six-week project -- catch New York.

Although the Orioles are still a half-game behind the Yankees, they have completed a task that seemed extremely improbable July 14. They have made up 11 games in the loss column, the last two coming out west, where they were 6-2 while New York stumbled to a 4-4 mark.

That coast trip was a microcosm of the entire Oriole comeback.Balitmore has played close to .750 baseball for a month and a half (30-11 -- .732) while the Yankees have been a mediocre, break-even ball club (20-22 -- .476).

These teams returned east in exactly the same relative condition that they left: Baltimore has the answers while the Yankees just have questions.

Perphaps only numbers express how well the Birds are playing.

These days, they float on a cloud of statistics that act as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The most stabilizing influence in baseball is pitching. If that is the case, the O's are nearly lobotomized. For August, in which they are 19-6, the Baltimore team ERA is 2.59.

Among the heroes are Steve Stone (5-0, 1.86 ERA), Scott McGregor (4-2, 1.71) and Mike Flanagan (3-1, 2.86).

The most overlooked valiants, however, are in the much-maligned Bird bullpen that disgraced itself with a record that, at one time, reached 3-15.

During August, Earl Weaver has waved to the pen 19 times for the trio of Tim Stoddard, Tippy Martinez and Sammy Steward. They have worked 28 innings and allowed only three runs for an ERA of 0.96. Stoddard, with five saves and two victories this month hasn't given up a run in a dozen appearances since mid-July.

Each time out, with his 2.13 ERA and overpowering mien, he makes the loss of (now-injured) Don Stanhouse look as fortuitous as the free-agent defections that first gave Flanagan, McGregor, Eddie Murray and Rich Dauer a chance to play regularly.

In addition, the Birds have made only 11 errors in 25 August games, improving a team fielding average each day that already is the highest in baseball history (.985).

With that kind of pitching and defense, who needs hitting? Although few have noticed, the Birds have been in a team batting slump all month.

From July 14 to the end of that month, Oriole bats carried bad Baltimore pitching as the Birds scored 5-8 runs a game during an 11-5 stretch.

In August, the reverse has been true as Baltimore has scored only 4.2 runs a game, six-tenths of a run below its modest season average.

"That's called "ham-and egging," Weave said. "And it's more important than you'd think.

"You'd like your hitters and pitchers to all be hot all the time, but that never happens and never will. The best you can hope for is that your hitters pick up your pitchers and vice versa. That's exactly what we've been doing."

This recent hunt-and-peck offense -- more like a Blue Jay than an Oriole -- would seem to necessitate great come-from-behind ability. But it's not so. In baseball, pitching is the anesthetizing cure for everything.

During the O's just-ended eight-game winning streak, the team scored only 34 runs -- a pace that, over a season, would be worse any team in baseball.

Yet, during the 73 innings of those eight games, Baltimore led at the end of 44 innings, was tied at the end of 27 innings and trailed after only two innings during the whole streak.

And both times they trailed, the Orioles scored in the top half of the next inning -- once to tie and once to go ahead. In other words, the pressure of defeat seldom seemed real during a streak longer than most teams have all season.

"When we're going well, starting pitchers just won't let the team get behind," said Steve Stone, winner of 19 of 20 decisions since May 6. "Our job is simple: keep us even or ahead as long as we can, then turn it over to the bullpen."

How long can this blissfully simple state of affairs last? Well, Baltimore's team ERA of 3.26, so the Orioles' pitching may not yet have reached its natural level.

The O's have just gone 31-13 during the period of their toughest schedule of the year, with 20 games against the three best teams in their league -- Kansas City, New York and Milwaukee (13-7).

Now, in their final 38 games, the Birds have none scheduled against those three powers while they do have 14 games left with the three worst teams in the league -- California, Toronto and Seattle.

In fact, starting Friday, the Orioles play 20 of their next 28 games at home. If they are to build a lead, andarrive at the playoffs without their tongues hanging out, they must make hay now, because seven of their last 10 games are on the road.

"This is the time of year when you start talking numbers," said Mark Belanger. "Everybody asks each other, 'How many do we need to win? What's enough?'

"I always say the same thing. You're 20 games over .500, you're in the race if you're 30 games over .500, you'll be right there at the finish. But if you win 100, you've got to be dammed unlucky not to win at all.

"And that's the way it looks now."

For the past 66 games, the O's have rolled like a freight train on a donwnhill grade at a .697 pace.

To reach their goal of 100 wins, they would have to "slow" their pace just a trifle and finish the year 26-12.

No one can tell when a train will come off its tracks. Sometimes, too much downhill speed can be a dangerous thing. Certainly, losing back-to-back games to Seattle is the sort of atrocity that could derail a team.

Those losses were doubly diconcerting because they had a bizarre quality.

In Monday's 10-5 loss, Dan Graham bollixed two consecutive tag plays at the plate that led to four runs. That wasn't the worse, however.

When Graham returned to the bench, Weaver engaged the rookie in cordial discussion and wished to know where he had learned such methods of making tags.

"I've never tagged anybody at the plate before in may life," said Graham.

And so, it proved that the consummate Oriole organizaton has a man-behind the plate in a pennant-race game whose catching experience was so sparse that in his entire career he had never tagged anybody, nor been taught how to do it.

That image, however, does not accurately reflect the present mood of the Orioles. They are not a team agaonizing over a defeat or two -- not yet, at any rate.

They all know what will happen when they return to Memorial Stadium. Awaiting them will be gifts from adoring fans, among them cakes and pastries. The biggest cake will be placed in the center of the locker room.

When substitute Lowenstein arrives, the gathered players will begin a soft, murmured chant: Lo . . . Lo . . . Lo . . ."

Lowenstein, familiar with his ritual, will shoulder his bat. Marching to the center of the room, he will unsheath the bat from an imaginary scabbard, let out a hideous samurai cry and demolish the cake with one titantic blow.

The accumulated frustrations pent up in the pennant race locker room will explode along with the cake as teammates cheer and rate the scatter range of the blast.

Then the polite, efficient Birds will take the field and set about their task of producing still more numbers that are sure to cause concern in New York City.