These are the days when the Oakland A's are supposed to get the first significant hints as to whether or not they are true contenders for anything more serious than the easily won hearts of their Bay fans.

On the second game of their first tough road trip of the year, the A's escaped with a 5-4 victory over New York tonight in Yankee Stadium that was atypical in the truest sense.

To be sure, Billy Martin's bunch got a vital run by causing a balk by Yankee loser Tommy John. And, one of Pitching Coach Art Fowler's reborn pitchers got the victory as Matt Keough, who entered the eighth with a one-hit shutout, improved his record to 6-0. However, it was the A's supposedly weak link -- the bullpen -- that ensured this win.

After Dave Winfield and Reggie Jackson had turned a 5-0 Oakland lead into 5-4 in the eighth inning with a two-run double and a two-run homer back-to-back off Keough, Martin was forced to wave to his bullpen.

In came Bob Owchinko. And out went the Yankees. The southpaw got the final four Yankee outs without incident and has now allowed just one run in 10 relief innings.

Thus the A's , now 25-8, avoided consecutive road losses and gave themselves one more tiny but significant bit of evidence that they may be able to hang at the top of the American League West through the grueling months of a very long season. With six games in the next six days against New York, Milwaukee and Baltimore, Oakland got the perfect morale booster.

The game illustrated most of the major trends of both teams' seasons to date. The jubilant A's, with few visible means of support, devised a makeshift way to win, while the Yankees, super-abundant in talent, continued to grumble about a spring in which their team batting average is .225 and their collective run production is down a staggering 25 percent.

No member of the A's symbolizes the entire franchise better than Keough, a 25-year-old right-hander. Before the era of Billy Ball, Keough's career record was 11-35.

The Yanks didn't get a sniff of Keough until the eighth. But that changed in a hurry. "I went from pitching a no-hitter to a one-hitter to a four-hitter to, 'Damn, I sure hope I win this game,'" said Keough, a son of former big league outfielder Marty Keough.

The Yanks' four-run uprising couldn't have been simpler or quicker. Bucky Dent singled to left. Bobby Murcer sliced a double just fair into the left field corner and Winfield followed with a hard, hooking, two-run double into the same corner.

That's the 5-2 juncture at which every team in baseball calls for the bullpen -- except Martin's A's, who don't trust a pen that entered this game with a total of four saves -- five fewer than the Yank's Rich Gossage. Martin let Keough pitch to the horribly slumping Jackson, who scorched a liner into the second row of the right field bleachers above the 353-foot sign.

"That's the first time Dave and I have done anything decent back to back all year," said Jackson, who entered the game hitting .188. "The reason is me. Maybe it's too far from October right now. I know I can't look much worse.

Neither the Yankees nor A's will dwell long on the final four Oakland runs, because they were routinely produced: by Dave McKay's 417-foot RBI double in the second inning, Fred Stanley's RBI single in the fourth, Cliff Johnson's 410-foot leadoff homer in the fifth and McKay's sacrifice fly off reliever Doug Bird after John was in the showers.

The run that will hanut the Yankees tonight and send the A's back chuckling to their hotel was the game's first, in the first inning -- the one the A's stole in Martin fashion. It was a trademark run if ever Oakland scored one. s

Dwayne Murphy walked, then took second because he was running on the pitch on a ground out. On the first two-out pitch to Tony Armas, Murphy scampered to third ona wild pitch that never got more than 20 feet away from Yankee catcher Barry Foote, whose hands are all feet.

As every fans knows, there are 11 ways to score from third base with two out which are unavailable to the fellow who is still standing on second base. One of them is to steal home; another is to draw a balk. Murphy tried to do one and got the other. "Whenever a left-handed pitcher goes into a windup with a man on third," said Martin, "we steal home. We've been doing it for two years."

In his haste to step off the rubber and get Murphy in a hotbox, John balked. After a screaming match with ump Al Clark, John never seemed to regain his composure. Another victory for Billy Ball.

Two days ago, New York owner George Steinbrenner issued a statement saying that he was "very upset" with his team "from the manager on down."

Tonight's loss could not have improved his digestion.

After this game, Martin returned to his office to find a huge jeroboam of champagne from Steinbrenner with a note saying, "Can't we still be friends?"

That can hardly improve the digestion of Yankee Manager Gene Michael.