Now that his bat is smoldering, it's hard for Lee Lacy not to think about how different his career might have been had someone put him in the lineup every day during the past decade.

"You know where I'd be now if I had gotten to play every day?" Lacy asks with a mischievous wink. "On my way to the Hall of Fame . . . Don't take me seriously; I'm so full of it."

Lacy, the Baltimore Orioles' right fielder, is 36 and as full of life as possible. He looks 26 and runs like it -- it's great when you can play with a 26-year-old body and a 36-year-old head.

In each of the last four full seasons, Lacy has hit .300 or more and is moving toward a fifth. Until Sunday's game, when he went zero for four, he had a 20-game hitting streak, and through Monday night's game was batting .322. In the two months preceding the All-Star break, Lacy's 83 hits were more than Rickey Henderson (79), Wade Boggs (80) or anybody else.

When the Orioles signed him as a free agent to a four-year contract in December, they were looking for an outfielder and a contact hitter who could bat second in the lineup.

It's doubtful Baltimore knew it would be getting a player who, at the All-Star break, would be leading the team in hitting by more than 40 points, with no errors in 58 games.

"He's certainly done a hell of a lot," said Manager Earl Weaver, who had his eye on Lacy even before returning as manager. "He's been hard to get out, hasn't he?"

Lacy says he's been nearly this hot before. "In 1975, I was second on the Dodgers with a .314 average." He ended the 1980 season with a .335 average with Pittsburgh, where, he says, "I finally learned how to be a real good hitter, hanging around Stargell and Parker and Madlock and guys like that."

Earlier this week, he said, "It seems like every manager I've had in the past has sat me down no matter how hot I was. Most of those guys were -- well, I can't say." He laughed again.

Last year in Pittsburgh was the first time in Lacy's 14-year career in which he got more than 400 at bats (474). He responded by hitting .321, second in the National League behind San Diego's Tony Gwynn.

Lacy's previous years were spent platooning, hitting only against left-handers, or just plain sitting. Part of his misfortune, if one can call it that, was being with the Dodgers from 1972 to 1978.

Orioles Coach Frank Robinson, who was nearing the end of his career with Los Angeles when Lacy came up as a rookie, recalled how Lacy came up as a two-week replacement for Bill Russell, who was doing military duty.

Lacy jumped from AA ball right over budding AAA star Davey Lopes. Lacy hit safely in 12 of his first 13 games. The next year, 1973, he started at second base for 16 games before Lopes took over for the rest of the decade.

Lacy was ecstatic about signing with the Orioles. "I knew Frank was here," he said. "I played with him in '72, and he helped me so much. I don't know whether he knew it or not, but he was one of the few guys I looked up to. His accomplishments are astronomical. He just makes you want to play, and I knew it would be good to be around him.

"I also knew they needed a No. 2 hitter, and I was just ready. I don't believe in letting myself get out of shape, anyway. But I worked so hard, ran so many miles. Man, I was so ready."

But he was not at all prepared for what happened March 12 in spring training. Lacy tore ligaments in his right thumb trying to make a diving catch and had to go on the disabled list until mid-May.

"I was so hurt," he recalled. "I was just psychologically and physically hurt. I just kept thinking, 'Damn, the world is crushing me again.' I was just hurtin', teary-eyed torn up. All I could see was all that work going down the drain . . . "

Lacy's thumb has bothered him at times throughout the season, but his four four-hit games this season -- tied for tops in the American League -- ease the pain.

He's a line-drive hitter who still beats out some infield chops and grounders. ("I've got the greatest legs in the world, don't I?" Lacy said with another wink.) When the power hitters in the Baltimore clubhouse recently tried to tease Lacy about being a "singles hitter," he told them to check the record book to see how many of them had hit .300 five times.