BALTIMORE -- The first pitch of last night's game in Memorial Stadium was hit over the center field fence on one bounce by a New York Yankee. That, you might say, epitomizes the entire Baltimore Orioles season, or at least the last month.

Ah, yes, the last month. As in four wins and 22 losses -- the worst streak of baseball in the history of one of the sport's best franchises. When it was mentioned to coach Frank Robinson before last night's game that the team had only won twice in the past three weeks (2-17), he said, "Have we won that many? Oh, yeah. The Blue Jays felt sorry for us once and the Tigers had pity on us once."

The easy, conventional wisdom here in a town accustomed to crabs and pennants is that the Orioles are a rather talented team that is hopelessly lazy and indifferent and its players should be ashamed of themselves for accepting their huge salaries. After all, isn't this a team with Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray and Fred Lynn in the middle of its lineup? Aren't these Birds on a pace to hit 250 home runs -- the most in major league history? Aren't Ray Knight (.283) and Terry Kennedy (13 home runs) the absolutely perfect players to fill last season's two worst holes at third base and catcher? And isn't Mike Boddicker (2.90 ERA) one of the league's better stoppers and Dave Schmidt (8-1) one of the year's biggest surprise steals?

For crying out loud, how can a team with this kind of talent -- a club that just last month set a big league record for homers in one month (58) -- possibly play this atrociously if it were giving a reasonable effort?

In earshot of some reporters, one veteran member of the Orioles front office was heard to say, "Rip us, quick. We need it."

If only the Orioles' problems were that simple. The swooning Orioles of this June are not the same disgraceful bunch who quit last fall after Earl Weaver said he was retiring.

"It's entirely different. This is June, not August," said Robinson. "Then, guys could see the light at the end of the tunnel and the light was the offseason. This year, we have 90 games left. You can make a good season in that time. Considering how awful we've been, the effort has been pretty good. That's not the problem."

And that is the problem. The Orioles aren't lazy. The Orioles just aren't much good anymore. At least their pitching isn't. And that has been the core of every excellent Baltimore team and almost every contender in any town.

If anything, one of the Orioles' problems is that they are a losing team which still has a vestige of a winning attitude. The clubhouse before a game is like a morgue.

"We find a new way to lose every night. We hit or field or pitch, but not all three. It's one mistake tonight, two tomorrow, then three the day after that," said Robinson.

Many recent Oriole beatings have been of the 8-5 or 9-6 variety. "We don't lose lopsidedly because we don't give up," added Robinson, laughing bitterly. "Then we come back and lose another fairly close game the next night."

"You'd think we could win more than this just by accident," said left-hander Mike Flanagan, who, when he was injured last month, looked as if he might never get another start. Now, the regression of young starters like Ken Dixon, Jeff Ballard and John Habyan has been so rapid that the Orioles brass is pecking at Flanagan's jersey, asking when he'll be ready to take his turn once more.

"I really don't find anybody in here who has a defeatist attitude. Rip {Manager Cal Ripken Sr.} in particular never purveys a negative attitude," said Flanagan, implying that Weaver did toward the end. "It's been more like a bad dream. We were winning {26-20}, then everything started going sour. As a pitcher, when that happens it reaches a point where it's not you against them, it's you against yourself."

That is often the case with young pitchers who have no history of success to cushion their psychological fall. "My first year," said Flanagan, "I started 2-8 and finished 15-10, and I thought I'd had a terrible season. I'd never lost at any level, so I was crushed. I couldn't accept 10 defeats . . . Think what it's like for all our young pitchers."

The problem for the Orioles at the moment is that their confidence is egg-shell thin. Anything ruptures it. "We're all gung-ho before the game, then as soon as something goes wrong, we think, 'Uh-oh, here we go again,' " said Robinson, a Hall of Famer not known for giving up easily. "Anybody can become beat down {psychologically}."

This evening was a perfect example of what the Orioles can do when the ball rolls their way from the first inning. Yankees leadoff hitter Willie Randolph died at third base as Schmidt challenged the best hitters New York has -- Gary Ward, Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield -- and won.

As quick as you could say "three homers in one inning off Ron Guidry," the Orioles led, 4-0, as Ripken, Murray and Knight all homered over the left field wall. Given a lead, Schmidt attacked the New York order, going 2-0 on only three hitters and reaching three balls on only one. When the game ended, in just 2:09, he was a 4-0 shutout winner. Just like old times, right?

The Orioles would do well not to think so. This is a franchise that still thinks it belongs in contention. These are days when the Orioles desperately need to see themselves realistically.

Every time the Orioles go 5-1 or 14-4 -- and, in a sport of cycles and streaks, they're due to start winning again -- they shouldn't start dreaming. And every time they lose a few, they shouldn't stop having fun.

Baltimore's current status (30-42) is probably just as far from its true form as its 26-20 record in May. When the Orioles are finally willing to aim for a modest competence, they may finally be able to achieve it.