TORONTO, AUG. 27 -- The Toronto Blue Jays live or die by the home run. Having gone nine games without one, the Blue Jays are watching their pennant hopes die.

Without the big hit, Toronto was shut out three straight games by first-place Boston over the weekend and fell four games behind in the American League East.

The Blue Jays seemingly are incapable of scratching out runs. They are more likely to run themselves out of an inning than to manufacture a run with a bunt, hit-and-run or right-side grounder with a man on second.

"You have to give the Red Sox a lot of credit for playing good baseball and us a little credit for playing stupid baseball," said outfielder Mookie Wilson, the former New York Met who wonders why his current team has so little acquaintance with the fundamentals. "We've been so inconsistent. We feel we're as good as anyone else, but we haven't proven it."

Wilson drew a big ovation here Saturday when he successfully executed a sacrifice bunt. It was the only one the Blue Jays managed in a series in which three games were decided by one run and the other by two. Wilson, in fact, owns one-third of the team's 15 sacrifices, by far the fewest in the major leagues. Seventeen of the 26 teams have more than 40.

The Blue Jays lost four of five games in a series at Texas early in August. During those defeats, they had eight runners thrown out, five of which represented the tying or lead run.

"We've made a lot of base running mistakes, a lot of mental mistakes," said Manager Cito Gaston. "Errors you can accept, but a mental lapse has a tendency to come back and cost you. You hope guys learn from mistakes, but if they don't, they'll have a tough time staying in the major leagues. And if it doesn't stop, we're going to be in real trouble."

Asked what a manager could do about mental lapses, Gaston replied: "Not a damn thing. I'd like to get inside these guys' heads, but I'm not quite that skilled."

The Blue Jays' shortcomings in the area of fundamentals were made obvious by the Oakland Athletics in their five-game American League Championship Series last fall. The A's took over the major league home run lead during the Blue Jays' recent drought, but they also are expert at the little things.

"A lot of people think Oakland just hits home runs," Toronto infielder Rance Mulliniks said the other day. "But they execute better than anybody else. If they get a man on third with one out or a man on second with none out, they get the run in. That takes attitude as well as talent. You have to want to do things for the good of the team, like giving yourself up to advance the runner."

Ironically, Mulliniks came up as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning Saturday with none out, a runner on first and the Blue Jays trailing Roger Clemens, 1-0. A bunt was the obvious call, but Mulliniks was given a green light and lined out. The next batter, Fred McGriff, doubled to right, but Toronto never did score.

Two decisions during Friday's 2-0 loss saddled Gaston with monumental second guesses.

The game was scoreless when Greg Myers led off the seventh inning with a double. Manny Lee, a poor bunter who had botched a sacrifice attempt the night before, did it again. After making the bunt try obvious, he tapped the ball right back to pitcher Dana Kiecker, an excellent fielder who got the out at third.

A switch hitter, Lee was batting left-handed and could be expected to at least manage a right-side grounder, However, Gaston explained: "I know Manny's not a good bunter, especially from the left side. But I don't think Manny is able to pull the ball in that situation."

What can Lee do? Well, he's hitting .227. Nelson Liriano, the other second baseman who led the Blue Jays with 10 sacrifices last season, recently was sent to Cleveland in the John Candelaria trade, a move the Red Sox felt was a serious mistake by their chief rivals.

In the fifth inning Friday, the first two Toronto batters reached base against Kiecker. The next batter was Tony Fernandez, the No. 2 man in the order. No situation could be more demanding of a bunt, yet Fernandez grounded the first pitch into a double play.

Gaston's explanation was that Kelly Gruber and George Bell, the third and fourth hitters, "haven't had too much luck with Kiecker, so that's why I didn't bunt."

Gaston probably was right. Gruber and Bell were a combined zero for 24 in the four-game series. But if they aren't hitting, why are they occupying the key spots in the batting order?

"The offense has been pretty good all year," Gaston said. "But when they're not hitting, we're in trouble. Sometimes they slump together. We've had our ups and downs. Ten runs one night, one the next."

Or none one night and none the next. Bell, in a zero-for-15 slump, is day-to-day with a fluid buildup in his right eye. Gruber is zero for 24 and bothered by a sore right shoulder he attributed to a brief emergency role in right field.

The Blue Jays have the AL's best fielding percentage, but that merely shows how statistics can lie. Toronto has outfielders who turn routine flies into adventures and often miss the cutoff man, if he happens to be in position.

"If you don't execute, you don't win," said Gaston, who admits the club could have used the full spring-training period to work on some of the shortcomings that were exposed by the Athletics.

The failure to do the little things has contributed to the Blue Jays' inability to win close games. After a wild pitch on a pitchout led directly to Sunday's 1-0 loss, Toronto was left with a 17-24 record in one-run games, 11-14 in two-run games and 38-24 in all the rest.

"As a team, we're definitely underachievers, no doubt about it," Gruber said. "We should have a lot more wins than we do. But this is nothing new to us. We don't ever seem to make it easy on ourselves.

"What's hard to take is that a lot of guys {opponents} are saying, 'Hey, just stay close to the Blue Jays and they'll beat themselves.' "