"Shelby wasn't aware of the urgency of the moment. Otherwise, he'd have thrown the ball waaaaay over his (Dempsey's) head and askew to the right. Sometimes, it's better to have an unconscious rookie than a seasoned veteran."

--John Lowenstein, Baltimore Orioles

The Baltimore Orioles acted blase for nearly an hour, until all the unfamiliar faces had left their locker room.

Then, slowly, they began to flock around rookie John Shelby, the center fielder known as T-Bone who, this afternoon in County Stadium, may have helped the Orioles turn a ground chuck season into an autumn of filet mignon.

How often does a pennant-race play become a legend before sundown?

How often do veterans gather around a 24-year-old rookie and make him recreate his every move and gesture and thought, explain to them in every detail how he saved them all, saved their 5-2 victory, saved their season and put them back on the road to a baseball miracle, maybe, with one breathtakingly perfect throw to the plate.

The Orioles wanted to know exactly what millions of baseball fans across America wanted to know after watching Baltimore beat the Milwaukee Brewers in a game of excruciating tension and sublime overall quality.

Hey, kid, how in the world did you do that?

What Shelby did this afternoon was change the shape and feeling of an entire pennant race with one heave to home.

When Shelby, racing in with a timed sprint, caught Cecil Cooper's fly ball and launched his throw to the plate, the Brewers seemed just seconds away from tying the Orioles, 3-3, in the eighth inning.

Having just knocked out starter Dennis Martinez, the mighty Brew Crew surely would find a way to excite their crowd of 48,161 with a victory that would push their league lead to four games with seven to play.

By the time Shelby's low, hard, one-hop throw to Rick Dempsey's belt buckle had nailed Bob Skube, who had tagged and was trying to score from third, to end the inning, the Orioles were unalterably on course for a victory that cut Milwaukee's lead to a precarious two games.

This game, which winning Manager Earl Weaver called "one of the best you'll ever see," had a dozen moments of crisis on each side and more corny heroes than a bad novel.

There was a calm, poised Dennis Martinez on the mound, working out of jams and pitching a three-hitter for seven innings, exactly a week after learning that his father had been killed in a car accident.

"I had to do it for him . . . Yes, I have to, after what happened to my father," said Martinez, who returned from the funeral in Nicaragua only on Thursday.

There was cleanup man Eddie Murray, the elegant stoic, continuing one of the greatest clutch-hitting streaks in the game's history; after a first-inning dusting by loser Mike Caldwell, Murray rebutted in the fourth with a home run halfway up the left field bleachers for the Orioles' first run, then drove in an insurance run in the eighth to give him 47 RBI in his last 40 games.

There was Rich Dauer, with two singles and a triple; Dan Ford, with three hits and an RBI; rookie Cal Ripken, with the single that drove in the eventual winning run, not to mention a half-dozen classy digs at short. And there was southpaw Tippy Martinez, getting the last five outs for a save, finishing with a flourish of strikeouts as he got Gorman Thomas and Don Money on curves to end the game and send the big beer and bratwurst crowd home in stunned and suddenly worried silence.

However, it was Shelby's throw that was the starring act in a seesaw drama.

"It's the first time I ever saw 25 players call out one runner," said Ray Miller, the pitching coach, laughing.

"When the throw was on the way, I was saying to myself, 'Hit, hit, hit,' so I'd be ready for the contact, give a blow instead of take it," said Dempsey, who blocked the plate with his body and soul, slamming the tag into Skube's face before the rookie's foot reached the plate. Milwaukee can mull in its suds this evening why Manager Harvey Kuenn didn't have a fast pinch runner, like Marshall Edwards, on third base instead of Skube. Scoobee, doobee, do.

"Man, I thought you'd misjudged it when you broke back," right fielder Ford said to Shelby, "I was screamin', 'In, in, come in!' "

"I was just getting a running start," said Shelby, who dashed more than 10 yards at the last instant.

"I wanted to keep the throw low enough to hit the cutoff man, so, if we didn't get him at the plate, the go-ahead run (on first base) wouldn't get down to second," said Shelby, showing his older mates that he'd learned his bush league lessons well. Heads were nodded approvingly. The peg had whizzed past the cutoff man's ear.

Weaver has given Shelby, the heir to weak-armed Al Bumbry, four starts in two weeks. The switch hitter has responded with seven hits and the throw.

"He's a great outfielder," said Weaver. "Might be putting him in (Paul) Blair's class in a couple years."

Two days ago, Milwaukee was ready to start celebrating a flag. Now, the week ahead seems long and fraught with humiliations.

"I hope my good buddy Ralph (Houk, manager of the Red Sox) comes through," said Weaver, speaking of Milwaukee's three-game trip to Boston while Baltimore visits Detroit. "I think Boston's about ready to bust loose."

Even the Orioles' low profile puts more pressure on the much-praised Brewers. The bleachers were bedecked this cool, sunny afternoon with dozens of bedsheet signs rhyming the phrase Brew Crew with the name of the rock group The Who -- the product of a promotion by a local radio station.

However, The Who seemed an appropriate nickname for the Baltimore team that is tormenting the more conspicuously talented Brewers. Case in point: Shelby.

"Is there a single Shelby anecdote?" Mike Flanagan was asked of the quiet, well-mannered rookie. Said Flanagan, "There is now."