Phil Niekro has won 299 games. And he will, some other night, win his 300th.

Yet, when we try to find the old man's finest hour, we'll be pressed to find a game when he deserved a standing ovation more than the one 55,303 fans bestowed on him in defeat tonight in Yankee Stadium.

Neither the ends of poetic justice nor the interests of a great pennant race were served here as Friday the 13th proved unlucky for Niekro and his New York Yankees, who lost a vital battle to Toronto, 3-2, to fall 2 1/2 games behind the determined Blue Jays.

In 1965, for the Milwaukee Braves, Niekro won his first major league game on a Friday the 13th. So much for omens. This time, he was cursed with the worst of crisis misfortune. For a man whose only baseball wish is to pitch in one World Series, it almost seemed obscene.

The 46-year-old king of the knuckleballers, who's been hanging in the big time by his fingernails for 20 years, pitched out of jams with Blue Jays in scoring position five times. In all, he endured 13 base runners, two errors, another misplay, a wild pitch, a passed ball and two stolen bases.

When his defense wasn't stabbing him in the back, Niekro's own body was betraying him as his arm and fingers cramped so badly in the closing innings that the Yankees trainer had to come to the mound and work on him like he would a fighter trying to avoid throwing in the towel.

Yet, in the end, Niekro did not allow a single earned run in his nine innings. All Toronto got was garbage. Which may help trash the Yankees' season.

If he'd won, Niekro said, "I'd have been the first person to dance the polka at home plate in Yankee Stadium."

Instead, the Blue Jays, who looked unnerved in a six-run Yankees inning Thursday, were dancing with relief.

The first two Toronto runs scored because Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly threw the ball over Niekro's head at first base and because, later in the third inning, Ken Griffey let a routine line single by Al Oliver skip between his knees for a two-run "triple."

The last and decisive Toronto run was scored by a man who had struck out. Lloyd Moseby struck out to start the fifth, but reached when Thursday's three-run homer hero, Ron Hassey, let the pitch escape him for a passed ball as Moseby took first. Moseby stole and took third as Hassey's low throw bounced into centerfield.

Once again, with two outs, Oliver poked a single to left for his third RBI. The 38-year-old bounce-arounder had driven in one run in 23 games.

The Blue Jays now know that they will leave town in first place no matter what happens in this Bronx horror palace the next two days. And the Yankees, who had won 30 of 35 before losing two of their last three, know they'll have to close the season with three in Toronto.

Thursday's goat, rookie shortstop Tony Fernandez, who made two errors during the Yankees' comeback, made brilliant back-to-back plays this evening -- one a diving stop of a liner, the other an over-the-shoulder grab of a popup in high-speed three-way traffic.

Blue Jays Manager Bobby Cox, who pushed the wrong button when he called for Dennis Lamp in Game 1, made a gutty move this time, yanking Gary Lavelle, who had worked three shutout innings, despite the fact that the bases were clean with one out in the eighth.

On came rookie Tom Henke, who got his 12th save, lowered his ERA to 1.55 and gave the distinct impression that one 6-foot-6 human had managed to combine the fastball of Goose Gossage and the forkball of Bruce Sutter. Henke, who has 35 strikeouts and only seven walks in 29 innings, appears to be on the brink of endangering the whole concept of the batted ball.

Against some less formidable creature, the powers of the mighty Yankees bats, plus the noise of the crowd and the whole courageous aura of Niekro's performance might have added up to another comeback rally.

Henke just put his foot on the Yankees' necks and ground them down.

Niekro, blameless on all counts, blamed no one but himself. "Even though there was an error or two, I have to pick up the guys when men are on base," he said. "Twice I just didn't get Oliver out."

Also, Niekro, who won five Gold Gloves in his nimbler days, was sorry that he came an inch shy of nabbing that Mattingly throw to first that ticked off his glove to open a two-run inning.

Four times, Niekro ended dangerous innings with strikeouts: of Garth Iorg with the bases loaded, as well as Willie Upshaw, Fernandez and George Bell. "He looked like (Muhammad) Ali finishing rounds with a flurry to impress the judges," said Blue Jays broadcaster Ken Singleton.

Yet, afterward, Niekro cared not at all about No. 300. "I'll get it. I've got three or four more starts this year and 30 to 35 next year," said the man who was cast off, after 268 wins, by the Braves two years ago.

Since then, the Braves have recanted, built a statue of Niekro in front of their park and now plan to sign him as a free agent this winter and probably bring him home as baseball's first pitcher/manager.

As always, the stoic Niekro showed no damage from the loss.

"My career proves that you can keep bouncing back," he said.