Watching the Baltimore Orioles' lethargic performance tonight, it was difficult to tell that they are in the thick of a pennant race.

Pitching and defense, the first book in the old testament of the Oriole bible, broke down tonight and the slumping Birds dropped their second straight to the California Angels, 12-6. Baltimore has lost four of its last five games, to Seattle and California, the two worst teams in the American League, with tonight's defeat dropping them 2 1/2 games behind the resurgent New York Yankees.

Even worse, the Birds must worry about the sneaky Boston Red Sox, who quietyly have come from nowhere to make the East Division race a three-team chase. The Fenway Park gang trails Baltimore by five games.

Of all the teams in the league, the Angels were the least likely to win two of the first three games in a series in Baltimore.

Baltimore had beaten California nine straight this season before Friday, including a 13-8 laugher to begin the four-game series.

But tonight the Angels did all the chuckling as they pounded three Oriole pitchers for 15 hits. Starter and loser Mike Flanagan (13-10) was the first shell-shocked victim as California drubbed last year's Cy Young Award winner for four runs and five hits in two-thirds of an inning.

Releivers Tippy Martinez and Tim Stoddard gave up the other runs as the Angels scored one in the second, one in the fourth, two in the seventh, and four in the eighth.

The Angel list of batting heroes is a long one. Rod Crew had three extra base hits. Bert Companeris had two singles, a sacrifice bunt and reached base on an error. Dan Ford had three hits and a run batted in, Carney Lansford a single and an RBI. Bob Clark two hits, one a home run, and Jason Thompson had a pinch home run.

Both homers came off Stoddard, the first he has allowed all year, and the first runs he had allowed in 17 innings.

But the biggest thorn was Rick Miller, the fleet center fielder who was dropped from leadoff to ninth tonight. He responded with two hits worth four RBI.

"I've been in quite a slump," Miller said. "Hitting in the leadoff spot you're expected to score runs and I wasn't getting on base. But in the nineth spot you're expected to drive them in."

That he did.

Almost as disappointing as the weak pitching was the defense, the best in the league, according to the statistics. Orioles outfielders missed cutoff men at least twice.

Kiko Garcia made an error on a routine ground ball and Rich Dauer misplayed a soft liner into a two-base hit for Carew.

Still, the Orioles stayed close most of the game. A good pitch here and a crafty glove there could have saved them this loss. But they didn't get it. a

Trailing 5-0 in the third, the O's battled back with their own four-run innings, capped by Eddie Murray's three-run homer, his 23rd. Dauer had driven in Garcia earlier in the inning with a single. But California was able to punch out enough runs whenever needed, making late inning home runs by Rick Dempsey and Terry Crowley meaningless

Angel reliever Mark Clear pitched five innings for the victory but said he wasn't especially sharp. He relieved starter Frank Tanana, who struck out six O's on a tantalizing curve ball.

"These nights are going to happen to everybody," Clear said. "We deserve some credit also. This club isn't going to lay down for anybody this last month just because we aren't in the pennant race. But I still think the Orioles are the best team in the American League. No need to hit the panic button."

Clear's teammate, Dan Ford, disagreed.

"The pressure is getting to them," Ford said.

But Baltimore catcher Dempsey, always ready with a retort, said "We're just in a bad groove, that's all. We can come back.

"We didn't make a good pitches on some hitters. They hit some shots and got lucky on others and wound up with 12 runs. When you get six runs for Flanagan, that's normally enough.

"But as far as this looking back at Boston stuff, that's crazy. We got enough to do just looking at the Yankees in front of us. Boston has to catch us."

Any way you look at it, Baltimore played poorly. And 3,000-plus at Memorial Stadium booed their team loudly several times tonight.