Give George Steinbrenner credit. He knows how to motivate his New York Yankees.

With the wrath of their owner ringing in their ears, the Yankees went out and, in a must-win situation before a capacity crowd of 54,699 in Yankee Stadium, were whipped by Toronto, 8-5, to fall 4 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays in the American League East with three weeks to play.

On Saturday night, Steinbrenner entered the press box and volunteered a two-inning blistering of his veteran personnel which, after winning 12 of 13, had lost two in a row to the Blue Jays.

Included in the diatribe were Dave Winfield ("Where's Reggie Jackson? I need Mr. October and I've got Mr. May"), Don Baylor ("not a money player"), Ken Griffey ("a Little Leaguer does better"), Billy Martin ("what the hell is he doing . . . he mismanaged"), Ed Whitson ("not good this year") and Dave Righetti ("look at him -- and they say they don't need practice").

Spurred by this rhetoric, Whitson was battered by a six-run third inning. Griffey made one error, had another RBI double clank off his glove and played a routine single into an RBI double. Martin raged in private to his confederates. And the Yankees, in a game Martin said "we have to win," looked as though they couldn't have cared less, getting just one hit until the seventh, when they already were down, 8-0.

The Yankees finally got angry too late, scoring three in the eighth and two in the ninth as Griffey had a double and two-run homer, Baylor an RBI double and Winfield an RBI single. But the damage had been done.

After the game, Baylor said he had demanded to be traded and Steinbrenner, who earlier in the day had traded minor leaguers to acquire 46-year-old Phil Niekro's brother Joe, said he'd try to oblige Baylor. The deal for Niekro, 40, unites the two pitchers, who have not played on the same team since they were both with Atlanta in 1973-74.

For the Blue Jays, former Yankee Doyle Alexander, whom Martin has called uncourageous and gotten rid of twice, won his 16th game this year and pushed his Blue Jays mark for the past two seasons to 33-14.

In Alexander's Toronto career, the man who wasn't supposed to be a pennant-race pitcher is 14-1 after Sept. 1. Ironically, the Yankees still are paying all but $60,000 a year of Alexander's $800,000 contract and will again next season.

Even the Blue Jays -- who won the final three games of this four-game series -- sympathized with the Yankees players. "That's the kind of stupidity I don't even want to comment on," said ex-Yankee Cliff Johnson, who had three RBI today and five for the series. "Winfield should get a tip of the hat. For the man (Steinbrenner) to criticize him just because his ego isn't being fed by being 10 games in front in first place isn't fair. The one thing the Yankees don't need is a lot of disharmony now."

Toronto's third inning was as close to a baseball morality play as will be seen. Tony Fernandez, Lloyd Moseby and Rance Mulliniks singled for one run. Cleanup man George Bell hit a blast toward the 379-foot sign.

Usually, Griffey, a fine, swift outfielder who two weeks ago made perhaps the finest above-the-fence, game-saving catch ever seen in this park, would have grabbed such a ball, sending the runners back.

But things are different these days. On Saturday night, Martin had lambasted left fielder Billy Sample for not making an impossible catch on a crucial play. "As I was going for that ball, the thought flashed through my head, 'I'm going to be the scapegoat,' " said Sample.

Today, Bell's drive hit the end of Griffey's glove and bounced away for an RBI double.

With the infield in and Dennis Rasmussen pitching, Johnson (No. 00) pinch hit for Al Oliver (No. 0) and poked a grounder through the right side of the drawn-in Yankees infield for a 4-0 lead.

After a single and a double play grounder, Rick Leach singled and red-hot Jesse Barfield yanked a liner just inside the left field line.

A kind of team nervous breakdown followed. Griffey seemed afraid to charge the ball to hold it to a single. Instead, he waited for the carom. But there wasn't any. The ball stuck under the bottom four inches of the wall mats and Griffey had to fetch it as Leach scored standing.

For some reason, young shortstop Bobby Meacham decided to try a 180-foot throw home, even though Leach was two steps from the plate. As many in the crowd gasped in disbelief, the throw sailed over the cutoff man, over the catcher, over the pitcher backing up the plate and landed in the third row of seats. In the owner's box.

Barfield, who had stopped at second until he saw the overthrow and started for third, was waved home.

The Yankees weren't done with their foolishness. In the fourth, left fielder Bell lost Don Mattingly's fly in the sun for a two-base error and Winfield followed with the Yankees' first hit -- a single to left. Before the game, an angry Winfield, who had his 100th RBI on Saturday, said, "I'm sorry I can't drive in 100 runs a month . . . I've got a lot I'd like to say (about Steinbrenner) but I'm not going to yet."

Down six runs and with only one out, third base coach Gene Michael sent Mattingly home. Bell, whose arm is as strong as his glove is weak, duplicated the type of strong peg he had used Thursday to throw out Winfield stretching a single. This time, he nailed Mattingly by 10 feet.

Thereafter, the Yankees confined themselves to ending innings with the bases loaded (Mike Pagliarulo and Rickey Henderson), getting trapped off base on line drives (Henderson) and kicking grounders (Pagliarulo) to produce unearned runs.

"They just beat us, that's all," said Martin. "We need a big winning streak, then three games at the end in Toronto. You can never give up in this game."

For the first seven innings, the Yankees came very close to doing just that.