BALTIMORE, JUNE 15 -- He was pitching in the big leagues during the Kennedy administration, when the Niekros were mere minor-leaguers and before Baltimore Orioles starter Eric Bell was born.

If 44-year-old left-hander Tommy John isn't the eternal game's eternal flame, he's its next-best thing. Tonight, he gave the New York Yankees five strong innings and earned the victory in a 9-2 rout before 20,313 at Yankee Stadium.

John gave the Orioles a clinic on the importance of pitching to spots, changing speeds and keeping the ball low. He probably didn't throw a single pitch that exceeded 80 mph, but for the results, might as well have been force-feeding them Nolan Ryan fastballs.

He allowed two earned runs and seven hits in 5 1/3 innings and, with a 7-2 record, tied Rick Rhoden as the winningest Yankees pitcher. His ERA is 3.23 and, thanks to a new slider and a lot of perseverance, he has allowed nine earned runs in his last 38 1/3 innings.

"I'm making pitches and the guys are making the plays," John said. "The game is six inches either way, and tonight we had the six inches on our side. There were a couple of balls hit that would have gone either way."

The victory was the 270th of his major league career and helped the Orioles to their 15th defeat in 17 games. At 28-35, they are 12 games behind AL East Division-leading Toronto and appear a lot more likely to finish last than first.

"It's not hard to get a handle on what our problem is," Orioles third baseman Ray Knight said. "We're just not getting the pitching. We haven't had anyone come in and shut the other guys down."

John left the game in the sixth with a cramp in his left calf, but by that time the Yankees (38-25) were on their way to pounding three pitchers for 15 hits. They got four hits from Mike Easler and four RBI from Mike Pagliarulo and could barely remember they were forced to play the game without injured Don Mattingly, Rickey Henderson and Claudell Washington. Reliever Pat Clements followed John and also was excellent, pitching 3 2/3 shutout innings for his second save.

Bell (5-6) became the latest Orioles starter to get pounded, allowing eight hits and five runs in 3 2/3 innings. He has lost four straight starts and allowed 21 earned runs in 15 innings during that stretch.

He was followed by another rookie, John Habyan, who also was hit long and hard, giving up four runs in two innings. The Orioles managed nine hits, and Knight, making his return to New York for the first time since helping the Mets to a World Series victory, got three of them.

"Bell got behind on every hitter and was just all over the place," Orioles Manager Cal Ripken Sr. said. "You can analyze it any way you like, but he just pitched poorly. Habyan didn't pitch well, either. We didn't pitch. How can you when you give up nine runs?"

Ripken said he would consider another change in the rotation, but he is short of options now that Jeff Ballard has been sent back to Rochester and Habyan already has been demoted to the bullpen. Ripken has been so desperate for pitching that he is sending erratic Ken Dixon (3-6, 6.71 ERA) back out tonight.

"Sure, I'm excited about it," Dixon said. "I've been a starter my whole career, and I want to start. I'm going to give it my best shot."

Bell got the Yankees out in order in the first inning, but 11 of the last 18 hitters he faced reached base. That streak started in the second when Dave Winfield singled, Ron Kittle walked and Easler bunted to load the bases. Bell walked Rick Cerone to force in one run, and an infield out by Pagliarulo made it 2-0.

The Yankees made it 3-0 in the third inning when Gary Ward got a leadoff single and eventually scored on Easler's single.

The Orioles pulled to within 3-2 in the top of the fourth. John walked Eddie Murray and Knight followed with a single. Fred Lynn bounced a single to center to score a run, and after Knight went to third on Terry Kennedy's grounder, he scored on a wild pitch.

But the Yankees broke the game open and knocked Bell out with two runs in the bottom of the fourth inning. Pagliarulo singled to lead off the inning, and after Wayne Tolleson struck out, Willie Randolph doubled to left to score Pagliarulo. Henry Cotto grounded out, but when Ward followed with another RBI double, Bell was out of the game with the Yankees ahead, 5-2.

Habyan kept the Yankees scoreless for an inning, but so did John. John left in the sixth after Cal Ripken Jr. singled, Murray flied out and Knight singled. Yankees Manager Lou Piniella brought in left-hander Clements, and Lynn greeted him with a single.

That should have loaded the bases with one out and Kennedy coming up, but third base coach Jimmy Williams inexplicably waved Ripken home, where Cotto's throw from center was waiting for him.

"That wasn't a mistake," Ripken Sr. insisted. "The guy made a heckuva throw, and I'm not sure he wasn't safe anyway."

In the sixth, the Yankees jumped on Habyan for four runs. That inning began with Cotto's fly falling between center fielder Lynn and left fielder Ken Gerhart for a double.

"Just a mixup in communication," Ripken Sr. said.

Winfield had an RBI single in that inning, and when Tony Arnold entered the game with the bases loaded, he promptly allowed Pagliarulo a three-run double to make it 9-2.

Orioles Notes:

Are the Orioles a different team when right-hander Mike Boddicker pitches? Since the beginning of last season, they are 28-19 (.596) in games started by Boddicker. When anyone else starts, they are 73-105 (.410) . . . Boddicker is 5-3 with a 2.86 ERA this year. The other starters are 11-23 with a 5.99 ERA . . .

As it turns out, it wasn't Ripken's idea to wear the orange uniform tops Sunday. After they lost a 10th straight game Saturday night, coach Elrod Hendricks went to General Manager Hank Peters and suggested it. Peters said: "We haven't got anything to lose." They'll probably wear them at several home games this season after not wearing them since 1983. . .

Ripken said he intended to continue using new reliever Tom Niedenfuer as a late-inning man, despite his 7.36 ERA and three blown saves in four chances . . . Despite six errors in their last three games, the Orioles still have made 11 fewer than at the same point last season . . . The Orioles have signed Donnie Buford Jr. to a contract. He's the son of former Oriole Don Buford and hit .274 with 25 stolen bases and 25 RBI his senior season at Southern Cal.