BOSTON -- Forget everything that has been published to the contrary the past four weeks. Roger Clemens is just fine. It is the Toronto Blue Jays who aren't looking so good.
Clemens, whose physical condition has been a national preoccupation since he dropped out of the Boston Red Sox rotation in early September, defied the doomsayers and took his turn yesterday, aching shoulder and all. Now it's the Blue Jays who need to recover in a hurry, or face certain elimination in the American League East.
They could not manage a run during Clemens' six innings on the mound and had no response to three Tom Brunansky home runs in a 7-5 defeat that dropped them two games out of first place with four games to play.
It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that a Boston victory in the series finale today would guarantee the Red Sox at least a tie for the division title and put the Blue Jays in an almost impossible situation.
Clemens had not pitched since Sept. 4, but he warmed up well and gave up just four hits on the way to his 21st victory of the year. He gave way to relievers Wes Gardner and Dennis Lamp and eventually Jeff Reardon, but already had a lead even the Red Sox couldn't blow.
Not that they didn't give it a try. Lamp surrendered five runs with two out in the ninth inning to make it interesting -- four of them on a grand slam by Kelly Gruber -- but Brunansky had built a foundation solid enough to withstand a head-on collision with Red Sox karma.
He broke a scoreless tie with a fifth-inning home run and went on to homer in three straight at-bats to blow the game open. He drove in five runs in the first three-homer game of his career. But more importantly, he drove the Blue Jays so close to the edge that they'll probably be getting a postcard from Carrie Fisher any day now.
"It's a player's dream to help your ballclub like that," Brunansky said. "The first one felt the best, just getting a run on the scoreboard with the way Roger and [Todd] Stottlemyre were throwing.
Stottlemyre struck out six through four scoreless innings and left trailing, 1-0, with the bases loaded and and one out in the sixth. But reliever Duane Ward came on to give up a two-run single to Dwight Evans and a game-breaking three-run shot to Brunansky.
Brunansky also hit a bases-empty shot in the eighth, raising his season totals to 14 homers and 68 RBI.
Clemens was gone by then, but he held the a strong offensive team in check long enough for his team to take control.
"He looked pretty good for a guy with a bad arm," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "Guys who are winners reach back for a little more and that's what he did."
The Red Sox have never discounted how important his mere presence can be to the chemistry of the team, which might explain why his return transcended the one game the club gained in the standings. But Clemens said he missed the team as much as it missed him.
"I wanted to feel like I was part of the team again, because I felt like I had let them down," he said. "We lost a 6 1/2 -game lead, and I felt like that was my fault because I wasn't there."
Now the Red Sox have another commanding lead, though a loss today would draw the Blue Jays back within a game with three to play. A Red Sox victory would clinch a tie, with Clemens apparently available to pitch the one-game playoff even if the Red Sox blew another big lead.
"We have to come back and play hard tomorrow," Brunansky said. "They aren't going to quit. We've got four games left and they have four games left."
Still, the Red Sox and their fans seemed to invest much of their hope in yesterday's game and the prospects of Clemens being available in October. It was only one game, but the return of one of baseball's top starting pitchers had become a major preoccupation.
"It was really an emotional roller coaster," Brunansky said. "You watched Roger go out there and get loose, but then he sat down and you thought, 'He's not going to go.' Then he got back up. Then he took the mound and he shook his arm a little bit. Whenever he did that, I felt a little twinge in my arm."
Nevertheless, Clemens struck out three of the first five batters he faced and looked very much like the Roger Clemens who had dominated the American League for much of the season. The six scoreless innings dropped his league-leading ERA to 1.93 and extended his string of consecutive scoreless innings against the Blue Jays to 17.
"I started to get tired in the third inning," he said. "I started to feel it in the fourth and fifth. I was done after the sixth."
The Red Sox didn't need him to go any further, not after Brunansky's big day. They didn't want him to go any further, not with the possibility of his starting the opening game of the playoffs improving by the minute.
"I thought he would have a little trouble with his control, being away all that time," said teammate Mike Greenwell, "but he threw the ball great. He was Roger Clemens. What else is there to say?"
NOTES: Reardon came on to get the last out of the game and record his 20th save, giving him nine straight years with 20 or more. Only Bruce Sutter had ever accomplished that. . . . The grand slam was the first of Gruber's career, and it left him with 31 home runs and 117 RBI. . . . Brunansky's three-homer performance was the first by a Red Sox player since Jim Rice hit three on Aug. 29, 1983. . . . Brunansky has four homers and eighth RBI in his last four games. He has a career .328 average at Fenway Park, with 22 home runs and 69 RBI in 212 at-bats.