The past two years, when Dennis Martinez was scheduled to pitch, Rich Dauer would approach the right-hander who led the Orioles in victories in 1981 and 1982 and ask, "Who's pitching tonight?"

"Me," Martinez would say with his little kid's grin.

"Aww right, now we got 'em," Dauer would reply, pounding fist in glove.

This innocent Little Leaguer's game, acted out by big leaguers, continues, but with a new wrinkle. Now, when the second baseman sees Martinez, he still asks, "Who's pitching?" And Martinez sheepishly answers, "Me."

"Oh, no. Now we're gonna get killed," says Dauer, who then jerks his head sideways as though watching some titanic blast off Martinez.

"I laugh," says Martinez, "but how do you think that makes me feel inside? 'We're gonna get killed. Dennis is pitching.' "

Martinez is the one Oriole who drives everybody crazy, including himself.

Because he probably has as good a combination of stuff, stamina, control and raw athletic ability as any right-hander in the American League, he's expected to win 20 games. After all, if Steve Stone, Ross Grimsley, Mike Torrez, Wayne Garland and Pat Dobson did it, surely Martinez, with all his promise and panache, can, too.

Yet this season, the league has an incredible .329 batting average against Martinez; he's allowed 6.28 runs a game, 5.22 of them earned. The Nicaraguan, now 28 and in his eighth Oriole season, is baseball's only 10-game loser. When Martinez starts, the Orioles are 5-11; in other games, they're 34-17.

"Everybody says, 'If Dennis were hot, we'd be 10 games ahead,' " says Martinez forlornly. "This has never happened to me before in my career."

Making matters more perplexing, Martinez has had perfect health with not so much as a hangnail to distract him. His team has scored plenty of runs, 76 in 16 starts. He's rested, well-supported by his defense, offense and bullpen. He's seasoned and of prime age.

In the second year of a five-year contract, he's financially secure. He has been married for 11 years, has three children, is popular with teammates, now speaks fluent English, works hard and has an eager-to-please attitude. Even those who are exasperated with him find themselves charmed by his looks, his vulnerability, his boyish earnestness.

Yet, so far this year, he's been the worst pitcher in the league.

He's been knocked out before finishing the fifth inning seven times, nearly a season's quota. He's squandered early leads, walked weak hitters when he could least afford to, fielded erratically, and proved incapable of keeping anybody from stealing second. He's thrown the ball down the middle when trying to hit corners and missed the plate by a yard when trying to groove one. He's been snakebitten, but he's also been awful.

"If we weren't in first place, I don't know how I'd feel. I have to get my stuff together . . . I have to get my confidence back," says Martinez. "If Palmer and Flanagan had been healthy, I know I'd be in the bullpen. Or maybe I wouldn't be here anymore. You never know (about trades). When you're going bad, there's a lot of talking. 'He's not concentrating . . . he doesn't care . . . he's not holding the runners . . . his mechanics are messed up.' That can confuse you."

Confusion has been a problem for Martinez all year.

"He's thinking too much," says reliever Tippy Martinez. "Everybody's telling him, 'Do this,' and 'Don't do that.' It's got him all messed up."

Anything and everything has gotten into Martinez's head and gnawed at his confidence. For a while, Martinez thought he couldn't pitch to Rick Dempsey--a personality conflict. Then, it was concluded that Martinez should throw more fast balls. Next, it was Martinez's delivery that came under scrutiny, as well as the novel notion that he was "wild in the strike zone," meaning that he was throwing strikes, but not the proper kind.

Martinez, a born worrier, falls prey to every speculation, plus a few of his own. He wonders if switching from a four-man rotation to a five-man, though good for the team, "maybe is not good for me." He even misses Earl Weaver.

"Earl pumped me up out there. He'd scream at you and you could hear him all the way out on the mound. You throw 'ball one' and you'd hear Earl yelling, 'Come on, go after this guy. Throw strikes or I'll get somebody in there who will.' You say to yourself, 'I better bust my butt or he'll take me out.'

"Joe (Altobelli) is a quiet, calm guy. I never get a chance to talk to him. He says in the papers, 'I have to keep sending Dennis out there because we don't have anyone else'? What is that suppposed to mean?" said Martinez, his face clouding. Then he brightens. "I'll make him have confidence in me."

In one breath, Martinez is grateful to the Orioles, calls them, "the best organization in baseball," but in the next, he admits he feels that, even when he has pitched 280 innings, or led the team in wins, "You never make them happy . . . I always hear that I'm going to be the next Cy Young, the next 20-game winner . . . all that."

Now, Martinez is working on his umpteenth self-improvement project. The current panacea includes a modified delivery (more compact leg kick), a new theory ("concentrate on the leadoff men") and a lot of positive thinking. "I have three starts before the All-Star game. I want to win all three, starting on Friday (against Detroit)," he says, "then, the second half I start 0-0. I want to help us get in the playoffs . . . This still can be my year."

"Dennis was down for a while, but he's not now," says Altobelli. "If he keeps his pitches down, he'll be all right."

"Many, many people say we should put him in the bullpen to straighten himself out," says pitching coach Ray Miller. "Dennis has been a perennial 16-game winner, and I think he'll win 16 this year. Every year, I've had one pitcher who trailed the field, and every year, he's been the one who leads us down the stretch."