Eight days ago, the Baltimore Orioles had the competent but resigned look of a confirmed third-place club. For 88 games, they'd told themselves, over and over, that they were an excellent team just waiting for a few breaks, a touch of magic, the benediction of circumstance.

However, after their dismally inert "second season" in 1981, it seemed the Birds had lost some indefinable quality and had no notion where to rediscover it. A sense of deep mutual confidence, almost of collective baseball destiny, that existed in 1979 and 1980, had visibly waned. Once, in disgust, even gung-ho catcher Rick Dempsey sighed, "It feels like the end of an era."

Now, all that has changed.

The Orioles' era remains intact.

"We're gonna be tough to stop now," said Dempsey tonight after the Orioles had beaten the Chicago White Sox, 2-1, before 14,233 fans in Memorial Stadium to remain just two games out of first place.

Seven consecutive victories--seven full of late-inning come-from-behind drama and tight, fundamentally sound team play--have transformed the Orioles' place in the standings and substantially altered their sense of themselves.

The Orioles hardly know what source of delight to revel in first. Should they laugh about how they've succeeded in relegating Earl Weaver to the role of manager in absentia? Weaver once again consigned himself to the bowels of Memorial Stadium tonight, voluntarily exiling himself from the team's dugout. "We'll have to see what communications are like in K.C.," he said, ducking the issue of how long he will continue to suspend himself now that the club goes to Kansas City for four games starting Thursday.

Wherever the Birds look, they find gifts presented to them, like tonight's victory in a game the White Sox, not the Orioles, probably should have won, 2-1. What isn't handed to the Orioles, they take. This evening's work was a basic demonstration of how a well-schooled, disciplined team steals a victory from a wild-and-woolly bunch.

On the surface, this game was simple. Chicago scored a run in the fifth off winner Scott McGregor (12-7) as rookie Chris Nyman singled, went to third on Vance Law's double a scored on Rudy Law's single.

Baltimore answered in the sixth, scoring two runs off loser Richard Dotson (3-11). Ken Singleton doubled, then Eddie Murray and John Lowenstein hit back-to-back pitches to right for RBI singles.

When McGregor left after eight excellent innings (eight hits and one walk), the Sox made a rustle in the ninth. Carlton Fisk got a leadoff single, knocking out Tim Stoddard, who faced only one man. On came Tippy Martinez--unscored upon in 15 relief appearances over 18 1/3 innings in July--who got three quick and simple outs; he fanned Mike Squires on three failed bunt attempts, watched Rick Dempsey run down pinch runner Ron LeFlore trying to steal, then got Harold Baines on a can-of-corn fly ball.

What these rudiments don't reveal is that:

* The Orioles' second run never should have scored. On Murray's RBI single, right fielder Baines not only overthrew the cutoff man, he almost missed the whole stadium. As his ludicrous rainbow heave landed 30 feet left and 10 feet behind home plate, Murray took second base easily, from whence he scored on Lowenstein's hit. Without that crazy throw, no Baltimore victory.

* The Sox should have had a second run in the fifth. With men on second and third, one out, Rudy Law snapped a clean line single to center that landed 15 feet in front of Gary Roenicke. To everyone's shock, Vance Law on second never tried to score. "The third base coach yelled 'Tag up' to the man on third," explained Dave Nelson, first base coach. "The man on second heard him, thought he was the guy being yelled at and broke back a few steps toward second base. It was nobody's fault, but it might have cost us the game."

So, with those two elementary plays reversed, Chicago would win, 2-1.

The Orioles are as chipper as the White Sox, on a 21-34 slide, are miserable.

Of the Orioles' 43-23 record since May 13th, Weaver says, "On every contending team you hear the same thing--'Everybody's chipping in.' And that's true of us. That's what all the 'magic' is about, so I guess our (Orioles) magic is back . . .

"The Cooney (umpire slapping) incident let everybody know we cared, that we ain't takin' things lying down," added Weaver. " . . . We let everybody in the world know that we care. Whether we make it (to the World Series) or not, only time'll tell. But people know we care. I knew that they cared. Now, they know that I want it, too, regardless of this crap about 1982 and it's my last year (before retirement) and all of that."

Note for posterity: on Monday, when Weaver was still on suspension, umpire George Maloney intercepted the Orioles mascot--the Bird--and said, "You got to come and talk to me every three innings so I know it's not Earl in there."