Right on time.

Jim Palmer arrived tonight, right on time.

With the serious business of a head-to-head pennant race battle only days away, the greatest pitcher in Baltimore Orioles' history finally looked like his best self this evening, beating the Boston Red Sox with graceful ease, 8-1.

"I think I'm just about there," said Palmer, all smiles while holding court after spacing eight hits in 7 1/3 strainless innings that allowed the Orioles to retain their four-game AL East lead.

"My arm gets a little better every time I pitch," added Palmer after lasting for 95 pitches on a 95-degree night. "I just have to get to the point where I'm confident in a close game going seven or eight innings and giving up (only) one or two runs."

"I think Jimmy proved to himself that he's back," said Coach Ray Miller.

For the first three innings, Palmer seemed a duplicate of the man who finished 1982 on a 13-2 streak to finish second in the Cy Young balloting. At one point, he struck out Jim Rice, Tony Armas and Carl Yastrzemski in a row, blowing them down with fast balls as though leaving a calling card.

Thereafter, the artist fell out of sync a bit and resorted to his usual mind-bending, speed-changing tricks. "That Palmer really knows how to pitch," said Boston Manager Ralph Houk. "Different speeds, different angles, everybody's always off balance."

Like last year?

"Yeah, for three innings," said Palmer. "Unfortunately, it's a nine-inning game . . . (pause) . . . or, in my case, seven innings."

How does your arm feel?

"Old. Very old," said Palmer, but he was laughing. For once.

A pair of two-run Baltimore homers--by Eddie Murray (No. 27) off loser Dennis Eckersley in the first and by Rick Dempsey in the seventh--punctuated a 12-hit barrage as the Orioles returned to their torrid hitting ways. The Eck was awful, as he's been all year (7-12, 6.01 ERA). The Orioles practically ran to the plate to crush his no-longer fast ball and hanging sliders.

This evening was also full of splendid defense as the Orioles started four double plays, two of them by Glenn Gulliver.

In addition, Todd Cruz stole a hit with a barehanded stab of a bad-hop grounder, Palmer made a balletic barehand grab and toss on a bunt and Jim Dwyer, in right field, made the most spectacular home run theft of the season here.

In the eighth, Dwyer leaped--chin to fence top, armpit over the seven-foot-high wall--to snatch a blast by Chico Walker.

Even Dwyer seemed stunned that the ball was still in his glove after he bounced off the fence and fell to the earth. "It's definitely fair to assume that that is the best defenive play of my life," he said sheepishly. "I don't have the greatest reputation out there. I just jumped and held on as hard as I could when I felt the ball in the pocket.

"I held onto it for a while because it's hard to throw back to the infield when you're sitting on the ground . . . All I could think was, 'Jeez, somebody'll probably hit the next one right to me and I'll miss it.' "

In a lovely note, Boston's only run was driven in on a single by Yastrzemski. That RBI pushed him into ninth place on the all-time list (1,840), breaking a tie with none other than Theodore Samuel Williams, the gentleman he replaced in left field 23 seasons ago.

"With Yaz, the same result as always; an RBI," said Palmer. "He used to homer over the left center field fence. Now, it's just a single. I remember when we used to try just to make him take one bad swing, or check his swing. I think he did once, in 1969."

This is called Palmer class. Actually, Yastrzemski only has four homers and 19 RBI in 18 years against Palmer. And a .243 batting average. Also, Palmer continued to wear Jim Rice on his watch chain as the AL home run leader went zero for four with two feeble double play grounders; Rice's career average off Palmer is .218 with 25 strikeouts in 87 at bats. The crowd of 19,710 gave Yastrzemski a fine hand in his last at bat, perhaps aware, that with left-hander Mike Flanagan working Wednesday's game, he may never play here again.

Perhaps the only significant blow in this game was Murray's opposite-field homer in the first. With Palmer sharp and Eckersley (who is not Palmer's favorite person) in a career-endangering slump, the outcome seemed fairly sure.

"It was a good piece of hitting," said Murray, who compliments himself about once a decade. "I don't go that way too often. Sometimes you doubt your power after so many are caught on the track (to the opposite field). You get your feelings hurt in this park (with the deep power alleys). You've got to keep away from that track."

Murray's knee, injured exactly a month ago, is still sore and prevents him from running well and scares him on every jarring slide.

But he plays, and has 12 RBI in his last 12 games. "(Cal Ripken) and I need to be out there every day," said Murray. "We're the main something in there. When one of us is out, it's felt. It's not even that we do something every day. It's just that your presence is there."

Ripken showed his special quality this evening. After a single in the first, Eckersley got him out in the third, then talked trash to the 23-year-old as he ran back past the mound. "Man, was Little Rip hot," said one Orioles player.

Ripken's next time up, in the fifth, Eckersley was on the ropes, trailing by 4-1 with men at the corners.

On a 1-2 pitch, Eckersley knocked Ripken down with a fast ball at the temple. Ripken got up, took a slider low and away for ball three, then hit a full-count fast ball on the fists into left-center for an RBI hit. Eckersley left for a nice shower.