BALTIMORE, SEPT. 7 -- Five months ago, when Sparky Anderson said the 1987 Detroit Tigers were a better team than the '84 Tigers, a lot of people laughed. And why not? The '84 Tigers got off to a 35-5 start, won 105 games and breezed through the playoffs and World Series.

Tonight, after his Tigers had pounded the Baltimore Orioles, 12-4, for their 82nd victory, Anderson repeated those earlier statements, saying them at a time when his team is a half-game behind Toronto in a terrific American League East race that may not be decided until the final weekend of the season (Toronto at Detroit for three games).

"This is a much better team," Anderson said. "I knew we might not win as many games, but there's no doubt this is a better team. We only had three starting pitchers in '84. We had one guy in the bullpen, and that was Willie {Hernandez}, who saved 32 games and didn't blow a lead. That was a freak thing. That 35-5 start was a freak thing. I'll tell you, there's nothing freakish about this team."

This Detroit team hits home runs in bunches (193 and counting), scores runs in bunches (20 games of 10 or more runs) and has a nice blend of youth and experience.

It also has one of the best starting pitchers in the game. Jack Morris won his 17th game tonight, allowing the pathetic Orioles (62-75) three runs and eight hits in seven innings. He did it on a night when his control was terrible and his forkball flat.

But he survived. Alan Trammell's three-run homer in the first inning was the second of 16 Detroit hits, and every Tigers starter had at least one. The Orioles had some chances, leaving runners in scoring position in the first, third, fifth and sixth innings, but when it ended, Orioles Manager Cal Ripken Sr. gave him his highest praise.

"I've seen him with better control, but he battles all the time," Ripken said. "No matter how he's pitching, he's always around for the seventh, eighth or ninth innings. He finds some way to get hitters out. That's a pitcher. You feel you have him on the ropes, then he makes the one pitch to get you out."

Morris (17-7) broke the Orioles on a night when another of their rookie pitchers was hit hard. This time, it was Jeff Ballard (2-5), who lost his fifth straight start, allowing five earned runs in 4 2/3 innings.

He wasn't helped much by the Orioles defense. An error by shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. allowed two runs to score in the first, and his brother, second baseman Billy, made one that allowed two more to score in the seventh.

Ballard's ERA for the season is 7.65, and he has been ineffective enough that Ripken Sr. said he might be dropped from the rotation. Before the game, he dropped another bombshell, announcing that Eric Bell (0-5, 7.61 ERA since July 29) will be dropped from the rotation for at least one start.

The bombshell is not that Bell will be replaced, but that the replacement will be 21-year-old Jose Mesa, the recently acquired right-hander from the Toronto Blue Jays. That Mesa will be given a chance shows how badly the Orioles are going. He is only 21 and his highest level of competition has been at Class AA Knoxville, where he was 9-12.

"We've just got to find some guys who can pitch better," Ripken said. "Eric's mechanics are all out of whack. Jeff just hasn't pitched well. If we've got anyone who can get people out, we're going to look at them."

And then there is Morris. He's the only major league pitcher with at least 15 victories each of the last six seasons, and his 140 victories this decade rank him No. 1 in the majors.

He has done it with consistency, rather than one or two spectacular seasons.

"That has cost him a Cy Young," Anderson said. "When you've had nine seasons like he's had and not won it . . . Well, it's a crime."

This may be the year. His 17 victories are second in the AL to the 19 by Oakland's Dave Stewart. Like Stewart, Morris is ranked among the league leaders in ERA, innings and strikeouts, and the Cy Young race will be decided in the final four weeks.

The dismantling took place in a hurry tonight. Lou Whitaker (three for six) led off the first inning with a single. Bill Madlock grounded out, but Ballard walked Larry Herndon, then gave Trammell a first-pitch fastball.

"It was right down the middle," Trammell said. "I'm not big about hitting first pitches, but that one was right there. If I let it go, it's a strike, then I have to hit his pitch."

Instead, the Tigers had a 3-0 lead. Jim Morrison singled and stole second. Ripken Jr. dropped Darrell Evans' pop, which allowed Morris to score. Evans scored when Tom Brookens followed with a single.

An Eddie Murray double got the Orioles a run in the first, then they got Mike Young's 15th homer in the second and Larry Sheets' 28th in the sixth.

"I was rushing along every inning," Morris said. "I never got settled in really, but I did make the pitch I needed to make when I needed to make it. That's been my claim to fame, I guess you'd say. Sometimes I do tend to get too relaxed."

Not that it mattered. Ballard got through the second, third and fourth, but a two-run single by Morrison knocked him out in the fifth. That began a procession of relievers -- Mark Williamson, Mike Kinnunen, Jack O'Connor and Scott McGregor.

Brookens singled in two more runs in the seventh, and Bill Ripken's error led to two more. They got another in the ninth off McGregor, and by then only a couple of hundred fans were left from an announced crowd of 13,651.

"I'm just happy to be on a team that has a chance," Morris said. "I was talking to some of the Baltimore guys, and their attitude is a little different than ours. September won't be as much fun for them."