NEW YORK, SEPT. 23 -- Perhaps the Boston Red Sox should persuade Roger Clemens to pitch left-handed. That's how desperately they need him back for the last 10 days of the American League East Division race.

Even a wrong-handed Clemens couldn't have done much worse than Tom Bolton did today at Yankee Stadium. Bolton was moved forward two days in the rotation when Clemens's still-ailing right shoulder prevented him from making what was to be his first start in 19 days. But Bolton failed to escape the second inning as the New York Yankees built an early cushion and held on for a 5-4 victory before 40,431 to eject the Red Sox from first place once more.

Boston (82-71) lost for the second straight day to the last-place Yankees, and this defeat was even more excrutiating than Saturday's marathon game that included a five-hour rain delay.

The Red Sox have lost four of five, eight of 10 and 14 of 20, and they fell one game behind the Toronto Blue Jays -- 5-4 winners over Cleveland -- in the AL East with nine to play.

The Red Sox' postgame clubhouse was sullen. Clemens discovered during a Friday rubdown that he might not be able to pitch today, and Manager Joe Morgan decided to withhold his ace. Clemens will be examined Monday, and Morgan said he hopes Clemens can make two more starts. But "today wasn't encouraging," the manager added.

Most of the Red Sox' recent days have been gut-wrenching, but today was even more so. Bolton -- who has yielded 19 hits and 14 runs over 11 1/3 innings in his last three starts -- gave up three runs on just 33 pitches to create a deficit that could not be overcome.

"I didn't have that little bit extra on the fastball, and my breaking ball was kind of a slow roller," said Bolton, who lost his third straight outing to fall to 9-5.

"Maybe I threw too many strikes. Everyone on this team wants to be a hero. But most of the time, we don't need a nine-inning shutout or a three-run homer. We just need to do our jobs, and most of us -- including me -- aren't doing that right now."

The Yankees used their three-run second inning to craft a 3-1 lead, then made it 4-1 with a run off Dennis Lamp in the fifth when Red Sox center fielder Ellis Burks waved at but didn't dive for Steve Balboni's apparently catchable fly ball that became a double.

Boston closed to 4-3 before Steve Sax's home run off Wes Gardner in the seventh made it a two-run advantage. And, despite an almost embarrassing number of opportunities, the Red Sox couldn't pull even.

Nothing went right for the Red Sox this afternoon, including Clemens's foreboding bullpen test of his tendinitis-impaired shoulder. It was a painful effort that cast doubt on the possibility of a start Friday against the Blue Jays.

"We didn't do it today," Morgan said. "We had a million chances, and we just didn't do it. We've got to be tougher than that if we expect to win this thing."

Boston batters went one for 15 with runners in scoring position, stranding three men at third base and three at second. They had a runner in scoring position with less than two outs in six of the nine innings, but they produced only four runs off three pitchers.

The Red Sox' only hit with runners at second or third was pinch hitter Phil Plantier's two-run, seventh-inning double that was a routine fly ball until left fielder Hensley Meulens lost it in the sun.

The Red Sox' failures were abundant and painful.

They had Mike Greenwell -- who had two doubles and a triple for his third three-hit performance in four games -- at third base with one out in the second inning. But Mike Witt (5-8) struck out Mike Marshall and retired Tony Pena on a groundout to keep New York behind by only 1-0.

Pena had been given a second chance when home plate umpire Larry McCoy granted him a dubious timeout while Witt's would-be third-strike fastball whizzed by.

There were third-inning homer bids by Luis Rivera and Jody Reed that hooked just foul, and Carlos Quintana's potential rally-making single -- after Reed had walked that inning -- deflected off diving third baseman Randy Velarde at just the proper angle for shortstop Alvaro Espinoza to get the out at first base.

There was Reed's botched bunt attempt that helped squelch a two-on, no-out uprising in the fifth. There were Quintana's and Wade Boggs's groundouts with pinch runner Jeff Stone at third -- after Plantier's double -- and the Red Sox trailing by 4-3 in the seventh.

And then, finally, there was the eighth inning that the Red Sox likely will not forget should they lose the division race. Burks drew a leadoff walk from Eric Plunk, and Greenwell followed with a triple to right-center to bring Boston within 5-4.

The Red Sox had the tying run at third with no outs, and Dwight Evans and Marshall -- with more than 500 career home runs between them -- were due up. "I'm feeling pretty good about our chances at that point," Greenwell said.

But Plunk struck out Evans with a change-up, then fanned Marshall on three pitches -- the last a very-high fastball. Pena bounced out to second baseman Sax to end the threat, and Dave Righetti worked a scoreless ninth for his 34th save.

"I felt like I had the advantage," Plunk said. "I was loose and relaxed, and those guys had the weight of the pennant race on their shoulders. . . . You could tell they were feeling it. They were trying to hit the ball through the outfield wall instead of just letting things come to them."

Said Evans: "There's no excuse. I didn't get the job done. That's a run you have to drive in, and I didn't."

The Red Sox will play eight of their last nine games at home -- including three next weekend versus the Blue Jays, who will close with a nine-game road trip.

So the Red Sox tried to cover their tracks for Saturday's pronouncements that they couldn't win this dogfight without Clemens; that, of course, was when they believed he was returning.

"We've had our good spells and our bad spells this year," Greenwell said. "Hopefully this is the end of a bad spell. If we can go home and have a good spell, then we'll win it."