Every team in the American League East is searching desperately for a fifth starting pitcher for the stretch drive.

Toronto has Doyle Alexander (0-7), Detroit crosses its fingers with Larry Pashnick, New York closes its eyes and gives the ball to Matt Keough and Milwaukee has Tom Candiotti, a one-career-victory rookie whose pitching arm has endured transplants of both an ulnar nerve and a ligament.

Today, the Baltimore Orioles called on a tall right-hander with the physique of a 25-year-old from Class A. Call him Highpockets from Hagerstown.

The fellow threw fluidly, worked for 90 pain-free pitches and lasted 6 1/3 innings, despite 10 hits. His luck was terrible, but he kept his team in the game, even though the Orioles eventually lost, 8-3, to Kansas City.

When his right fielder butchered a fly ball for one run, he ignored it. When the wind blew a 300-foot pop fly by Leon Roberts into the first row of bleachers for a home run, he just kicked the dirt. When a feeble chalk-hugging grounder went for a leadoff double and, eventually another run, he stoically pitched on.

Of the four runs he allowed the Royals, leaving the game trailing, 4-1, only a 400-foot solo homer by Hal McRae (who had a four-RBI day) was totally legit.

Yes, all in all, Jim Palmer looked like the sort of pitcher who might help a team in a pennant race.

In a division full of pennant-race starters like Jay Howell, Jim Gott, Juan Berenguer, Bob Shirley and Chuck Porter, the Orioles might be able to find a place for a No. 5 pitcher with 265 victories and three Cy Young awards.

Usually, come pennant-drive time, a team knows what to make of a game. It won or lost. It knows all the signs and omens by which lifelong ballplayers live and breathe. Today, however, the Orioles hardly knew how to feel about a loss that was such a mixed bag of blessings and blunders that you'd have to make a list as long as your arm to figure out whether the news was more good than bad.

At the center of the ambiguity was that pitching paradox, Palmer.

"Decent, decent. The fly ball was catchable, the home run was cheap," appraised K.C. Manager Dick Howser with proper moderation. "I'd take that kind of pitching."

"He didn't complain about anything all day," said Baltimore Manager Joe Altobelli, who was ejected (fourth time this season) for arguing a debatable balk call that sent home the first of four ninth-inning runs for the Royals against arsonist-of-the-day Tim Stoddard. "If Palmer comes out of this with no strain or pain, maybe he'll win his next six in a row . . . That would be a small price to pay for one loss."

"Palmer looked like his evil self . . . although he left a few (pitches) in the hacking zone," said Royals reliever Dan Quisenberry, who got his 34th save despite giving up a first-pitch two-run homer to Eddie Murray in the eighth (his 23rd) that cut Kansas City's lead to 4-3.

Palmer, perhaps miffed at being outdueled by the immortal Bud Black (7-4), left the park early and without comment. Last year, when he returned from bullpen exile and the threat of being traded, he was similarly mediocre in his first two starts (1-1), then went 13-1 over the next four months. Then, too, he avoided the press.

In the 50 games of Palmer's latest trip to the disabled list, the Orioles played .600 ball and the team ERA was 3.31--the best in the league. In fact, when Palmer has not been on the team this season, Baltimore is 55-36, while with him in uniform it is 14-15.

If the day's Palmer report was cautiously optimistic, then the Orioles were also happy to see Murray--in a four-for-41 slump with only two RBI since returning to the lineup after a knee sprain--crush his 420-foot home run. A Gary Roenicke solo homer (No. 16), that went clear over the upper-deck overhang in left, also gave signs that Orioles' bats are not completely dead.

Nonetheless, part of the message of this day was that the Orioles continue to live in fear of any left-hander who can throw a breaking ball for a strike and a fast ball on the fists.

"That's the fifth or sixth time in a couple of weeks that I've looked at a guy that I didn't think would make it through the second inning and he went on to beat us," said the pitching coach, Ray Miller.

At the moment, John Shelby is one for 28 and Howser says of him, "You don't see many players who'll chase bad pitches in all four directions--up, down, in and out." Jim Dwyer is two for 24, Rich Dauer four for 38, Todd Cruz eight for 50. All that, plus Murray's nonproduction, makes the Orioles' record in their last nine games (7-2) and their position in the standings (a .001 lead over Milwaukee) all the more remarkable.

"I think Cruz, Shelby, (Rick) Dempsey and a couple of others will come to the park tomorrow (on an off day) for some (hitting) work on things we've noticed," said Altobelli, whose club has slumped from No. 1 in the AL in runs in late May to No. 9.

Finally, the Orioles were left to stew over one obscure but vital play. After Murray's homer, his 23rd, Altobelli called for Stoddard to hold the deficit at 4-3.

Instead, the Royals loaded the bases with one out. Stoddard tried a tricky jump-pivot pickoff throw to first base, but never threw the ball when he saw he had no play. Rookie plate umpire Rick Reed called a balk on the clumsy move.

The Orioles argued half-heartedly. Altobelli only reached high dudgeon, and an ejection, after crew chief Dave Phillips, rather blatantly, precipitated a nose-to-nose shouting match. When the dust settled, McRae served a soft single to right over the drawn-in infield for a 7-3 margin.

Palmer's back-from-Class-A defeat was assured. Only the next six weeks will tell if his return may actually have been a day of victory.