The Detroit Tigers don't do things in a big way. It's the minutiae of baseball that have them in first place and it was those things that beat the Orioles tonight: two hit-and-run singles, a stolen base and a sacrifice fly. That and, of course, starting pitcher Milt Wilcox, who beat the Orioles for the first time in his career, 5-1.

The Orioles trail the Tigers in the American League East by three games, with Boston a half-game and Milwaukee 1 1/2 games behind.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Orioles, who have five games remaining with the Tigers, had to come into this series like the big, bad wolf licking its chops. After all, they beat the Tigers 10 times last year, six of them in September, and have more career wins against the Tigers than any other club.

"I wouldn't think they would be licking their chops too much tonight," Wilcox said.

Oriole catcher Rick Dempsey, who twisted his ankle in the fifth inning and was hit in the head by Ron Jackson's bat in the sixth inning, was licking his wounds instead.

"It definitely stifles us a little bit," said Dempsey, who left the game after the second injury.

But not completely. "They're a major-league baseball team," said Ken Singleton. "They are capable of losing any time."

But so, it seems, are the Orioles. "They are a lot further back than three games," said Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson. "They have to pass too many teams to win. Even when they win, they can't make up too much ground because there are too many teams ahead of them playing each other."

Losing, of course, is what many expect from the Tigers, especially when Wilcox is pitching against the Orioles. Coming into the game, he was 0-9 against Baltimore.

"All the people in the stands (all 10,899 of them) kept yelling all this crap . . . I had something to prove."

As do the Tigers. "We come in here every year and we're out of the race and Baltimore's in it. Everything goes their way," Wilcox said. "Now every out means something to us. We bear down a little more. We're a completely different team. We used to rely on power. Now we rely on pitching and finesse."

As pitcher Jack Morris, who is tied for the league lead in wins (13), said the other day, "We don't overpower anybody. We don't overwhelm anybody."

Tonight, the Orioles were effectively underwhelmed. With no score in the fourth inning, Scott McGregor, the starting and losing pitcher, walked Steve Kemp. Ron Jackson hit the ball deep to short. Sunday's child, Lenn Sakata, went to his right, backhanded the ball, and threw off balance to force Kemp at second.

With Jackson on first, Lance Parrish got an opposite-field single to right, the first hit and run. With Jackson on third, John Wockenfuss, who had the game-winning RBI, also did as he was told. With second baseman Rich Dauer breaking toward second, Wockenfuss hit the ball through the hole for a 1-0 Tiger lead.

"You have to make things happen against a pitcher like McGregor," Wockenfuss said. "It's tough to pop one (out) against a guy like that because he changes speeds so well and throws you off balance. With the hit and run, Sparky makes us stay back and wait on it and that helps."

The Tigers nit-picked some more in the sixth. Kirk Gibson, who really is too big for this sort of thing (6-feet-3, 210 pounds), bunted safely for a single. Kemp singled to center and Gibson, a former Michigan State flanker, went to third.

The count went to 1-1 on Jackson. He fouled the next pitch back, and hit Dempsey in the head on his backswing. Dempsey left the game, blood trickling down his cheek, and required four stitches. Of course, he said he feels fine.

On the next pitch, Jackson, hitting to the opposite field, dropped a single in front of Singleton in right field: 2-0. McGregor went to first, trying to hold Jackson, and Kemp went to third for his seventh stolen base of the year. (On another throw to first, Eddie Murray made his first error of the year, allowing Jackson to go to second.) Kemp scored the Tigers' third run on Wockenfuss' sacrifice fly to center.

"We haven't had any firepower (only 53 home runs) all year," said Anderson. "We have to do all the other, little things if we're gonna produce runs."

"There wasn't one thing that they tried that they didn't do," said Oriole Manager Earl Weaver. "The hit and runs, the bunt by Gibson to start the two-run inning, the sacrifice fly. They've been doing it or they wouldn't be in first place. Tonight they did everything they had to do that. That's why they're in first place on Sept. 21."

The Orioles aren't, because when they've had their chances they've squandered them. On Friday, they could have been in first place if they had beaten Milwaukee. Tonight, with the Tigers leading, 1-0, in the bottom of the fifth, they had the bases loaded and one out, but Murray hit into a double play.

Their only run came on Jim Dwyer's second home run of the year in the sixth inning.