The day he reported to spring training, Baltimore Orioles catcher Al Pardo made a point of telling a reporter 1986 would be different. His sore arm was better, his batting stance was different and his confidence was up.

Winter trips to Puerto Rico, like those confidence-building lectures in Venice, Calif., do that to players who've just hit .133.

Maybe he is different, and maybe no one will know it for awhile.

Today, as the Baltimore Orioles lost a sloppy 8-6 exhibition game to the Philadelphia Phillies, Manager Earl Weaver continued using a dozen different combinations, playing rookie Ricky Jones at first and third base and Larry Sheets at catcher for two innings.

Sheets never had caught against big league competition before, and he looked so good that Weaver is close to declaring this spring training experiment a success.

"With a 24-man roster, you're talking a game of numbers," Weaver said. "With what I've seen of Sheets, I would have no qualms of putting him in a game if the situation dictated it."

With Rick Dempsey, 36, looking as good as he has in years and with third baseman Floyd Rayford and Sheets both able to catch, Weaver may be able to get by without keeping another full-time catcher.

If he does keep another, though, he appears to be leaning toward keeping John Stefero, the pinch-hitting specialist who was up in 1983, or someone from a trade.

General Manager Hank Peters has had several conversations with the Houston Astros about veteran Alan Ashby, who may be available, and some with the Pittsburgh Pirates about youngster Ruben Rodriguez and star Tony Pena.

Lost in all of this is Pardo, who got his second start of the spring today and was the Orioles' star, homering once and missing another when an umpire blew a call.

If the Orioles question his ability to hit in the big leagues, they already believe his glove is good enough, and will tell him this when he's sent to Class AAA Rochester in the next couple of weeks.

"He's good to throw to," starting pitcher Mike Flanagan said. "He gives you a good low target, and he asks questions about pitch selection that make you think."

After a winter in Puerto Rico, Pardo agrees, saying: "I feel so much better than I did last year. I changed my batting stance, and I'm able to see all the strike zone. Last year, everything got messed up."

Remember Al Pardo? Two weeks after Weaver returned as the Orioles manager last June, he begged, screamed and pleaded with his front office to get him Pardo.

He had never seen the 23-year-old who was then spending his first full season in Class AAA ball, but he had read the reports. Not only is Pardo big (6-feet-2, 200 pounds), he switch hits, had hit with some power and was throwing runners out left and right.

Weaver won his argument July 2, but Pardo lost the war. Not only did he hit .133, walk only three times and strike out 15 times, but he tore a muscle in his arm and wound up with the worst percentage in the American League at getting base stealers (3.3 percent).

He made such an impression last summer that when he came to spring training this year, he was already penciled in to spend a full season at Rochester, and today doesn't change that.

His first homer today came off Philadelphia starter Charles Hudson in the fourth inning and was a towering shot to right that gave the Orioles a 3-0 lead. In the sixth, television replays showed he homered again, banging a ball off a billboard behind the right-field fence. But two umpires were hustling to get into position and missed the call, saying the ball hit the top of the wall and bounced back into play for a double.

"Everybody knew it except the umpire," said Pardo, who went to high school in nearby Tampa and had 11 members of his family at the game. "You could hear that the ball didn't hit the concrete fence. No, I didn't say anything. Earl was on him, and if he's not going to listen to Earl, what chance do I have?"

Home run or not, Weaver liked what he saw, saying: "Pardo's going to catch in the big leagues. I loved the two homers, and it justifies some of my judgments of him last year. But whether he's going to be with us April 6, I don't know. It's cruel, and I hate to send a guy down who has hit two home runs, but we're in a numbers game."

Pardo knows this.

"I think, if I were going to make the team, I'd be playing," he said. "Anyone would think that."

The rest of the game was poorly played as the Orioles made six errors and dropped another fly ball that was scored a hit . . . Flanagan all but wrapped up the opening day start, going five innings and allowing six hits and two earned runs. He didn't walk anyone, and in four spring starts, has walked two batters in 20 innings . . .

The infield at Jack Russell Stadium is known as one of the worst in Florida, so bad that several Orioles infielders refused to take ground balls before the game. "There wasn't one true hop all day," Weaver said, "but if you have the concentration, you make the plays anyway. We cannot be that bad defensively. Flanagan did a good job. He had to get seven outs to get out of the fourth, and that's another 1 1/3 innings. He could have gone eight."