Insult Jim Palmer, question the Baltimore Orioles great's competitiveness, and what do you get?

A complete-game, 3-1 victory over the New York Yankees to finish a five-game sweep of the thoroughly humiliated defending American League champions.

Last Sunday in Cleveland, Palmer begged and complained his way out of an 0-0 game after seven innings, protesting that he was in pain. Ever since, he has been in the midst of a minor firestorm of media and fan criticism as the right-hander's long history of asking for late-inning relief has been rehashed and moralized over.

So, this balmy evening, before 25,089 in Memorial Stadium, Palmer battled his way through 142 pitches to bring the Orioles their 24th victory in their last 28 games. The victory, while Milwaukee was idle, put the Orioles to just one game out of first place.

Except for Dave Winfield's 35th homer, in the second inning, Palmer (14-4) allowed only five hits. Baltimore scored two runs in the first inning off loser Dave Righetti (9-9) and that was all Palmer needed as he vindicated himself on a night when the Orioles' tired bullpen pitchers desperately needed rest.

Afterward, Palmer departed from his accustomed postgame silence.

"Did I have anything tonight?" he asked catcher Rick Dempsey.

"Not too much," admitted Dempsey. "I liked the fast ball you threw when I set up low and away and it ended up high and inside. Your control was real sharp."

Palmer insisted that there was "no pleasure" in answering his critics. As for the crowd's pregame cheer as he came in from the bullpen, Palmer quipped, "That was just my pass (list). I left 22 tickets . . .

"Our bullpen was kind of thin tonight, so it was good to go nine innings. Normally, it's not a smart thing to do, but there are exceptions.

"I can see (Manager) Earl's (Weaver) reasoning for leaving me in," said Palmer. "On the other hand, there's no denying that the innings take their toll, and so does 142 pitches."

True to form, Palmer said his body is on the point of collapse, this time his back being the culprit. "It took me five innings to get my back loose," he said. "I was throwing better in the ninth than any other time. I may see a doctor tomorrow who thinks he can help me. I may get the back injected."

In summary, Palmer said, "I know what I'm doing. I know how I feel. In Cleveland, the bullpen was rested and my back hurt. I took myself out. Tonight, the bullpen was tired and I stayed in. People don't realize things like that. I'm trying to help the team win the most games, and I'm trying to take care of myself, too. The innings catch up with you . . . look at (Mike) Flanagan and Dennis (Martinez)."

Veteran Terry Crowley captured the feeling of several Orioles when he said, "Jim Palmer doesn't have to show me anything, ever. By being so great, he gets himself in situations where so much is expected of him that nobody could live up to it."

The Orioles entered this game in a state of suppressed euphoria, still discussing the fine points of their recent successes. Sammy Stewart, who saved Wednesday's game with three innings of shutout relief, was the center of some teasing. It seems that, before being called to warm up, Stewart had "gotten tickled at something (bullpen coach) Elrod (Hendricks) said" and laughed so hard that he swallowed "half a can of snuff."

"I didn't pitch too bad for a sick guy," said Stewart. "I was so dizzy warming up that I saw four (bullpen) catchers."

The Orioles also took a novel approach to the fifth game of this series. They decided to take the lead instead of falling behind, as they had -- 3-6, 0-4, 0-2 and 2-5 -- in their previous four victories over the Yankees.

They started against Righetti, the southpaw they beat, 8-2, in New York last week. Orioles rookie John Shelby opened with a ground single through the all-immobile left side of the New York infield, Barry Evans and shortstop Andre Robertson. In fact, most of the Yankees' lineup these days appears selected from mystery guests: Evans, Robertson and first baseman Steve (Bye-Bye) Balboni, the 250-pound supposed slugger with numerous hitches in his swing.

Dauer walked. After Righetti struck out Cal Ripken Jr. on three pitches, Eddie Murray, batting .372 right-handed, lashed a 2-2 curveball -- a pitch that looked like a present compared with Righetti's fast ball -- into left for an RBI single; Murray has 38 RBI in his last 31 games. Gary Roenicke followed with a ringing liner to center for a 2-0 lead.

The Yankees halved that lead in the second as leadoff batter Winfield hit a Palmer fast ball far over the 387-foot sign in deep right-center for his 16th homer in 30 games. Winfield now has 35 homers -- more than any right-handed batting Yankee in history except Joe DiMaggio. Winfield has nine homers in his last 14 games.

The reason for the $23-million-dollar man's transformation into a bonafide slugger is probably technical, rather than a byproduct of the season-long feud with owner George Steinbrenner that some think has motivated Winfield.

Before the game, Winfield said he had made a midseason adjustment in his swing that has helped avoid topspin on his solid hits. Instead of diving, his fly balls now have underspin and carry extremely well, as balls should off the bat of such an athletic hitter.

Palmer pitched gamely, holding that 2-1 margin into the bottom of the sixth. After singles by Winfield and Balboni in the fourth, Palmer escaped by getting Evans on a grounder that bounced off Murray's glove to second baseman Lenn Sakata, who threw back to Murray to end the inning.

In the fifth with two on and two out, Palmer battled Ken Griffey through eight pitches -- with Winfield on deck -- before getting a pop out.

The Orioles increased their lead to 3-1 in the sixth, thanks to a gift run. Murray led off with a single to left and Roenicke was hit by a pitch. Dan Ford sacrificed. Up stepped Ken Singleton, a .184 hitter right-handed and a fellow without a homer from that side in more than a year.

Before the game, Weaver agonized over whether to play Bennie Ayala, a hot .297 batter, as designated hitter, or Singleton. As so often happens with the patient and sentimental Weaver, he stuck with his veteran, though he admitted that he'd written out a lineup with Ayala playing.

Earlier, in the fourth, with two on and none out, Singleton had struck out. Now, he grounded out meekly to second, no one advancing.

What looked like a lost inning suddenly became productive when shortstop Robertson threw wide to first on Sakata's routine grounder to the hole, allowing Murray to score.