At his best, he can be the Baltimore Orioles' most dazzling starting pitcher, a performer with pinpoint control and a baffling assortment of pitches.

And then there are the stretches when Scott McGregor loses that fine touch. At these times, he is a man caught naked, another guy trying to get by with an 84-mph fastball.

Which is the kind of rut he is in. Tonight, he was around for only 1 2/3 innings, and he got the Orioles in an early hole that resulted in a 7-3 loss to the Kansas City Royals before 20,674 at Memorial Stadium.

The loss was his third straight. In those three, he has pitched a total of only 3 2/3 innings with 11 earned runs, four homers and a 27.00 ERA. Tonight, he was around long enough to face six batters in Kansas City's four-run second inning, four of them reaching base.

The biggest blow was from Steve Balboni, who hit his 20th home run. Later, second baseman Frank White would hit a two-run home run off reliever Nate Snell. But it is McGregor (6-10) the Orioles are concerned about.

"That's not Scotty McGregor," Orioles Manager Earl Weaver said. "He's just not pitching with any confidence. He walked three guys in one inning. Well, you know that's not Scotty."

Originally, one more bad outing was going to get McGregor dropped from the rotation, but Weaver said he was leaning toward starting him Sunday against the Chicago White Sox.

As McGregor was blowing the Orioles (50-44) back into fifth place in the American League East, seven games out of first and one game out of sixth, Charlie Leibrandt, Mark Gubicza and Steve Farr were combining on a 10-hitter.

The Royals caught the Orioles on another night when their clutch hitting was dead. Leibrandt allowed 11 base runners the first four innings, but the Orioles hit into three more double plays during that time and left six runners on base the first three innings.

They can blame a lot of people, but especially center fielder John Shelby, who came to bat with six runners on base in his first two at-bats and scored one of them, on a double-play grounder.

The Orioles, who already were without injured first baseman Eddie Murray, also played without center fielder Fred Lynn, who sprained a thumb making a diving catch Tuesday.

Gubicza (4-5) got his fourth victory by pitching 3 2/3 innings of no-hit ball in relief of Leibrandt, and Farr pitched the ninth.

The Kansas City second began with a walk to White. McGregor then got in front of Balboni 0-2, but he delivered a pitch into Balboni's power zone that became a 2-0 Kansas City lead.

McGregor followed the homer by walking Jim Sundberg. Darryl Motley grounded into a fielder's choice, but McGregor wild-pitched him to second. He struck out Argenis Salazar for the second out, but when he walked leadoff man Lonnie Smith, Weaver brought in Snell. Willie Wilson promptly doubled to make it 4-0.

Meanwhile, the Orioles were at their absolute worst offensively. They loaded the bases off Leibrandt in the second inning, but with two outs, Shelby flied to center.

In the third inning, more of the same. Alan Wiggins got a leadoff single but was erased on Lee Lacy's double-play grounder. Juan Beniquez singled and Ripken doubled, but with runners on second and third, Dempsey grounded out to third baseman George Brett.

In the fourth, they closed it to 4-2, but not before hitting into their 98th double play. Shelby grounded into a bases-loaded double play to score Traber, and Wiggins singled to left to score Mike Young.

Leibrandt was gone an inning later, after allowing Ripken a one-out single. Mike Ferraro, the Royals' acting manager, brought in Gubicza. He wild-pitched Ripken to second but struck out Dempsey and got Traber to fly out.

The Orioles closed it to 4-3 in the sixth after O'Malley reached on White's three-base error and scored on Shelby's sacrifice fly. But the Royals scored two in the eighth on White's 13th homer and one in the ninth on Hal McRae's RBI single to pull away.