Reality grows colder and harder every day for the Baltimore Orioles. The important numbers tonight in the Metrodome were that Scott McGregor gave up three runs in the first inning, the Orioles lost, 5-2, to the Minnesota Twins, and Baltimore is further behind first-place Toronto -- 9 1/2 games -- than it has been at any point this season.

"In 1982, we were nine games out on Aug. 15 or 16," Manager Earl Weaver said. "But I can't remember what we did to turn it around in '82. It's not hopeless, but we've got to win a lot of ball games. We need a streak like Boston had; what was it, 17 out of 19?

"I'm sitting here talking about winning 17 out of 19 and we can't even go one and one. We've lost two straight now. We can do it though, we've done it in the past. That just proves that there's time, but it doesn't mean it's going to happen now."

McGregor (8-8), despite five earned runs in 5 2/3 innings, didn't pitch poorly. And Ken Dixon didn't allow a hit in 2 1/3 innings of relief.

"But you give up three runs in the first and you're scared to give up another the rest of the way," said McGregor. "These poor guys are trying to come from behind every night and it's just tough. I felt like I pitched pretty well; I didn't pitch badly at all. It's so close, but yet so far."

About the only bright spots for Baltimore tonight were Mike Young's ninth-inning single that extended his hitting streak to 14 games and Larry Sheets' 10th homer.

Otherwise, the Orioles weren't much trouble for John Butcher (7-9), who pitched 8 1/3 innings and probably would have completed the game if he didn't try to grab Young's 200-mph drive with his bare hand.

The Orioles did load the bases in the ninth. Sheets walked after Young's single and, after a popup by Wayne Gross, Floyd Rayford hit his second single of the game.

But Ron Davis, who came in for Butcher, threw a beautiful curve ball that caught pinch hitter Al Pardo looking at strike three.

After Sheets' home run in the seventh -- his first in 30 days -- got the Orioles within three runs, Rayford singled and Jim Dwyer pinch-hit for Alan Wiggins. Dwyer took a questionable called third strike and was ejected for yelling at plate umpire Ken Kaiser.

But the Orioles were deep in the hole long before that.

Minnesota started the game with a double by Kirby Puckett and a single by Ron Washington. With runners on first and third, the infield played in, which helped Gary Gaetti's grounder go past first baseman Eddie Murray for a 1-0 Twins lead. Tom Brunansky's sacrifice fly made it 2-0, and Kent Hrbek's single scored Dave Engle (on with a fielder's choice) from first on a bizzare play.

Center fielder Fred Lynn made a great leap to keep Hrbek's hit from bouncing over his head for an inside-the-park homer. But his throw flew over cutoff man Cal Ripken's head, allowing Engle to score the inning's third run.

McGregor had two out in the fourth but walked Tim Laudner (.219) and Puckett, which kept the inning alive for Washington to hit a two-run single for a 4-0 lead.

"That's one thing I've never seen Scotty do: walk two men with two out and the No. 9 hitter coming up," Weaver said. "The thing is, I know the guy's out there working his butt off to get the third out and give us a chance to come back . . . The last thing he wants to do is walk those two guys."

That No. 9 hitter -- Laudner -- came back in the sixth with a homer that made it 5-1, after Ripken's grounder had driven in Lee Lacy, who had tripled to start the Orioles' sixth.

Afterward, Weaver reminded several reporters that there's a lot of time left in this season, but then wondered, "When are we gonna do it? Let's hope it's tomorrow."