Jim Palmer pitched seven innings of masterful, scoreless baseball today, then sent himself to the showers. Three batters later the Orioles were behind and on their way to losing an important game in the race for the American League East title. The final score was 3-0, favor of the Cleveland Indians.

After dueling with Cleveland starter Rick Sutcliffe, each pitcher allowing two hits and no runs through seven innings, "Palmer said he couldn't go no more," said Orioles Manager Earl Weaver. "He said that was as far as he could go. Everything hurt -- he was stiff, his elbow, his shoulder, everything. That's what he told me. Now I don't know what he'll tell you."

Palmer said nothing, sticking to the policy of postgame silence he has followed most of the season.

Palmer, who gave up three long flies at the game's start before settling down, retired the Indians in order in the seventh. He struck out Andre Thornton, Mike Hargrove flied out and Von Hayes, who had one of the Indians' two hits, struck out on a 3-2 pitch.

But when the Orioles took the field in the eighth, reliever Tippy Martinez was on the mound. Leadoff batter Rick Manning grounded sharply off first base and Eddie Murray stumbled in pursuit, allowing the ball through. It was ruled a hit.

Ron Hassey tried to bunt Manning along, but Martinez had trouble finding the plate. On a 3-1 pitch, with the infielders breaking to cover the expected bunt, Hassey crossed up the defense and swung away, grounding a single through the spot vacated by shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. and putting runners at first and third.

Mike Fischlin's clean single scored the game's first run and Weaver replaced Martinez with Sammy Stewart. A sacrifice bunt, an intentional walk and Thornton's two-run single made it 3-0, with all runs charged to Martinez (8-7).

Meantime, Sutcliffe (12-6), a 6-foot-7 right-hander, was offering little quarter.

In the eighth he faced only three batters. In the ninth, he walked leadoff batter Glenn Gulliver and allowed a one-out double by Murray. But with men at second and third, John Lowenstein hit a liner that second and third, John Lowenstein hit a liner that second baseman Jack Perconte flagged down. Perconte doubled Murray off second to end the game.

The loss kept the Orioles three games behind division-leading Milwaukee, which was defeated in New York, 9-8.

It also seems certain to reignite the on-and-off battle between Palmer, a 36-year-old right-hander, and Weaver over Palmer's penchant for removing himself from games, citing various ailments. They have had a 14-year argument over what constitutes debilitating pain.

Today Weaver was circumspect in his assessments. He, catcher Rick Dempsey and pitching coach Ray Miller agreed that there was nothing in the way Palmer was pitching to indicate a physical problem.

"I thought he was pitching great," said Weaver, "but if he was hurting, I can't say. All you can do is take him at his word. I've been doing that for 14 or 15 years and he's won 261 games."

Said Dempsey, "He was throwing good. I don't know why he took himself out of the game."

Said Miller, "They both (Palmer and Sutcliffe) pitched a good game. Sutcliffe outlasted him, and they won. When our starter goes out and gives you seven good innings like that, you ought to win."

Palmer allowed only one Indian past second base, in the fourth inning when Perconte singled, stole second and went to third when Dempsey's throw skipped into center field.

But Sutcliffe, who shut out the Orioles for seven innings in his only other appearance against them, June 30, was just as strong.

"With a pitcher like that you have to jump on his mistakes," said Ken Singleton, the Orioles' designated hitter today. "He didn't make any. Whenever he took anybody off the plate (with an inside pitch), he'd come right back outside on the next pitch. You could see how he was working you but there was nothing you could do about it."