As Phil Niekro, head down, made his way slowly to the dugout in the fifth inning Tuesday night at New York, he probably took the Yankees' slim pennant hopes with him.
The 46-year-old knuckleball pitcher, a mainstay of the Yankees all season, had just failed for the third time to win his 300th. Niekro gave up eight runs in four-plus innings, the Detroit Tigers romped, 9-1, and the Yankees, with only 12 games remaining, fell seven games behind theToronto Blue Jays in the East.
Going into a Sept. 13 game with Toronto, Niekro had won five in a row, had a 15-9 record and the Yankees had climbed to within 1 1/2 games.
But two errors accounted for three unearned Toronto runs, Niekro lost, 3-2, and the Yankees were off on an eight-game losing streak.
Last Wednesday at Detroit, Niekro tried again for No. 300 and also to end the Yankees' five-game losing streak. But Kirk Gibson, Darrell Evans and Larry Herndon hit home runs and Niekro lost, 5-2.
The long ball again led to Niekro's downfall Tuesday night. A home run that Johnny Grubb hit deep into the center-field bleachers with two on in the second inning was all Frank Tanana (10-14) needed.
As Grubb circled the bases, the usually calm Niekro picked up Grubb's bat and tossed it angrily toward the Tiger dugout. The end came in the fifth when Gibson walked and Lance Parrish hit a two-run home run.
"Basically, I stunk out the pitching mound," Niekro told United Press International. "I've been hit hard before but never was I hit so hard so quickly. It was a terrible exhibition of pitching."
Yankee Manager Billy Martin explained why he left Niekro in so long. "I was trying to win the game," he said. "I also wanted him to win 300, so I left him in."
Toronto 6, Boston 2--Although the Blue Jays have had the best record in the majors almost from the start of the season, most experts expected them to fold up in the stretch drive.
Instead, when the race in the East hit the pressure stage, it was the Yankees who folded, not the Blue Jays.
When Jesse Barfield hit his 26th home run with a teammate on base in the eighth to finish off this victory at Toronto, it was the Blue Jays' seventh win in 10 games since the Yankees pulled to within 1 1/2 games earlier in the month.
"Pressure?" said Barfield, who has had a tremendous year in his first season as a regular. "We're not letting it get to us. It's bringing out the best in us."
Barfield, who earlier stole his 21st base, became the first Blue Jay to hit more than 20 home runs and steal more than 20 bases in a season.
Dennis Lamp pitched 4 innings of scoreless relief to improve his record to 11-0. Last season Lamp was 8-8 and had an earned-run average of 4.55.
Lamp took over for rookie Steve Davis with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth and got Jackie Gutierrez to hit into a double play. Bill Caudill pitched a hitless ninth.
The three Toronto pitchers held hot-hitting Wade Boggs without a hit in four tries. In his previous seven games Boggs, the major leagues' top hitter, was 15 for 27.
Seattle 5, Kansas City 2--The Mariner jinx struck down the Royals again in this game at Seattle and kept them from regaining first place in the West.
Phil Bradley, who earlier hit a home run to tie the game, hit a three-run home run off Dan Quisenberry in the eighth inning to break a 2-2 tie and give the Mariners their 10th win in a row over the Royals.
Mike Moore pitched a seven-hitter to improve his record to 16-8.
Before this season, Bradley, a former star quarterback at Missouri, had played in 147 games for the Mariners without hitting a home run. He has 23 this season. The game-winning home run was Bradley's 180th hit this season, tying the Mariners' club record.
With the Angels also losing, the Royals remained a half-game back in the tight race.