BALTIMORE, SEPT. 17 -- The Baltimore Orioles are equal-opportunity opponents in this American League East pennant race. They lose to each of the contenders with the same efficiency.

After a weekend in Toronto spent pulling the Blue Jays ever closer to the first-place Boston Red Sox, the Orioles returned to Memorial Stadium tonight and did their best to begin restoring the gap. Mike Boddicker struggled but outlasted a frosted Ben McDonald and Boston prevailed, 7-3, before 22,826 on the kind of chilly fall evening usually reserved for a Red Sox unraveling.

McDonald failed to complete the fourth inning, as Boston built a 5-0 lead and repelled Baltimore's brief comeback bid. Boddicker wasn't particularly impressive in a laborious six-inning, seven-hit, three-run performance, but continued a recent surge to improve to 16-8 -- including 4-0 against the Orioles, his former team. He had six of the 13 strikeouts registered by three Boston pitchers.

The sagging-of-late Red Sox broke a four-game skid with their second victory in their last eight games, improved to 81-67, their AL East lead intact at one game over victorious Toronto. The Red Sox began the day facing the prospect of losing sole possession of first place for the first time since Aug. 19.

Baltimore (65-81), meanwhile, lost its fourth straight and was mathematically eliminated; Boston's magic number against the Orioles is one, but Baltimore cannot overtake both the Red Sox and Blue Jays.

"It won't change my lifestyle," Manager Frank Robinson said of the fourth-earliest elimination in club history. "It had to happen sometime."

Only the major league debut of top prospect Leo Gomez, who celebrated his recall from Class AAA Rochester with two hits -- and two of Baltimore's season-high four errors -- enlivened the Orioles' otherwise drab night.

McDonald and Boddicker met once before this year -- at Fenway Park Aug. 22. The Red Sox battered McDonald that day and Boddicker won, 13-2. Baltimore's slide to the nether regions began shortly thereafter.

That win started a string of prosperity for Boddicker -- 5-0 with a 2.76 ERA his last six starts. With Roger Clemens sidelined -- he's scheduled to test his sore shoulder with a bullpen throwing session here Tuesday -- Boddicker has become the anchor of a pitching staff that likely will have to carry a mediocre offense if the Red Sox are to hold on.

"I'm not trying to take over for anyone or carry anyone," Boddicker said. "I'm just trying to do my job. . . . I wasn't real great tonight, but I gave us a chance to win."

McDonald brought a two-game winning streak into this game. What he didn't bring was control.

The rookie had difficulty finding the plate, unable to correct a problem with overstriding in his delivery, and walked five batters during his short stint.

His numbers bore an uncanny resemblance to his other matchup with Boddicker. McDonald (7-5) allowed five runs on four hits in 3 2/3 innings and 84 pitches then; he yielded five runs on four hits in 3 2/3 innings and 83 pitches this time.

"I don't think the weather had anything to do with it," said McDonald. "I just couldn't correct the mechanical flaws, even though I was aware I was doing it. I thought I had good stuff when I got it over the plate, but that wasn't very often."

Boston grabbed a 2-0 lead on two third-inning walks and sacrifice flies from Dwight Evans and Wade Boggs.

Boston finished McDonald and made it 5-0 in the fourth. Kevin Romine walked, Mike Marshall doubled, a wild pitch scored Romine, and Tony Pena's double to right-center brought Marshall home. After another wild pitch and another walk, Evans sent a tricky hopper that third baseman Gomez botched, Pena scoring.

The Orioles have few fears about Gomez -- who had 26 home runs and 97 RBI at Rochester this year -- at the plate. But club officials do have trepidations about his ability afield, and he justified those reservations tonight.

"I was kind of nervous, but that's no excuse," he said. "I have to do better than that."

Gomez's second big league hit in the fifth inning was preceded by three Orioles runs -- on a walk to Brady Anderson, a single by Cal Ripken and sharp doubles to right by Sam Horn and Mickey Tettleton.