The Baltimore Orioles tonight restored drama to the American League East pennant race.

The Orioles, who had been clobbered by a total score of 36-12 in their previous three games, including a 15-6 beating the previous night here, defeated Milwaukee, 7-2, this evening before 53,568 fans to cut the Brewers' lead to three games with eight to play.

In a showdown of staff aces, Jim Palmer, now 15-4, clearly got the better of Pete Vuckovich, now 18-5, as the Oriole great allowed only four hits, retiring the last 13 Brewers.

The Orioles greeted Vuckovich with four runs in the first inning, three on an Eddie Murray homer, then Ken Singleton's two-out, bases-loaded single for two runs sent Vuckovich to the showers in the seventh. Cal Ripken Jr. provided an eighth-inning insurance run with his 25th homer, off Dwight Bernard.

On Sunday, when Baltimore's Dennis Martinez faces Mike Caldwell, these clubs will play a genuinely vital game. If the Orioles win, they'll have captured this series and will trail by only two games; and the last four games of the season are scheduled in Memorial Stadium against the Brewers. If Milwaukee wins, it will lead by four games and its seven concluding road games, starting with three in Boston on Tuesday, will not seem half so harrowing.

Before this game, Manager Earl Weaver sat in the dugout with Steve Stone, the former Oriole pitcher now an ABC-TV color commentator, marveling over the Brewers' batting statistics.

Weaver paused, then said, not without honest feeling, "What I want to know is, what the hell are we doing in this race?"

Five minutes before the first pitch, the Brewers had the diabolical gall to show the highlights of their previous evening's 15-6 crushing of the Orioles on their 1,827-square-foot scoreboard.

There, flashed on 32,000 scoreboard lights, each capable of delineating 16 different shades of gray, the Orioles were forced to watch ground balls go between their legs and fly balls fall all around them. Not to mention Brewer home runs and doubles that endangered fences in all directions.

After such a reminder, one would think the Orioles would do anything to avoid repeating the procedures of the previous night. Instead, they went out and repeated what they'd done in Friday's first inning.

Baltimore scored four runs.

"Now," said one press box voice, "they're really in trouble."

The Oriole first inning, this time against ace Vuckovich, not Don Sutton, was almost a carbon copy of the previous game, although this time Murray, instead of John Lowenstein, hit the three-run homer.

With one out, Jim Dwyer, sent a triple over Gorman Thomas' head in center. Singleton walked, showing the veteran's restraint to take a 3-1 pitch with an RBI standing on third.

Vuckovich and Murray then had an at bat worthy of film for Cooperstown, Murray fouling off the righthander's best assortment before getting a curve at his letters on the 13th pitch of the sequence. He knew what to do with it. Charlie Moore climbed the 10-foot high fence but couldn't get close to the 380-foot drive, Murray's 30th home run (13th in five weeks) raising his RBI to 104.

Vuckovich, being mortal, despite his 32-8 two-year record as a Brewer, was shaken. After falling behind Lowenstein, who had a homer and double Friday, the 240-pounder came in with a fast ball. Lowenstein laced it off the 392-foot sign in right, past the diving Thomas, for a triple. Joe Nolan finished the inning's scoring with a booming sacrifice fly on a 3-2 pitch. It looked like another homer until the swirling winds, rotating clockwise inside County Stadium, knocked the ball down at the 362-foot barrier in right for Moore to catch, back to the wall.

Those deceiving winds may have saved Milwaukee another two runs in the second when, after a two-out single by Al Bumbry, Dwyer hit an identical poke that pressed Moore to the 362 sign.

Naturally, the mighty Brewers did not intend to stay passive in the face of such a cannonade. Not even against a reasonably sharp Palmer.

In the second, and again in the fourth, Ben Oglivie doubled sharply -- once to each corner -- and both times, platoon DH Roy Howell stroked waist-high pitches on a line for RBI singles.

Palmer escaped in the fifth when, with one out, he walked Paul Molitor and Robin Yount on eight pitches. Cecil Cooper and Ted Simmons lashed impatiently at the next two pitches, flying to center and popping up, respectively. Like Nolan and Dwyer's outs before, Cooper's high liner looked not only like a homer, but a long one, when it left the bat; the breeze and the cool mist-filled air of autumn seemed to knock perhaps 10 yards off its carry.

Vuckovich, who entered the game with a 4-1 career record and a 1.17 ERA in 54 inniungs against Baltimore, for a time was again the Orioles' master as he got 15 outs in the space of 16 hitters. Then, unexpectedly, that streak of easy outs turned into a quick shower for Vuckovich.

With two out and none on in the seventh, Rich Dauer singled to right, Bumbry singled through the box and Dwyer walked on a borderline full-count checked swing. Brewer Manager Harvey Kuenn chose not to call for left-hander Bob McClure, though that would have turned Singleton around from a.278 hitting lefty to a.179 righty.

On Vuckovich's second pitch, Kuenn regretted the no-move as Singleton, still a tough southpaw contact hitter, ripped a hard ground single to center for two runs and a 6-2 Baltimore lead.