BOSTON -- The fat lady long ago belted out her tune for the 2012 Red Sox, a dead team walking and not even pretending to find motivation in the season's final weeks.

But coming into this series against Boston, which had lost 11 of 12 and 27 of 37, the Yankees, with everything to play for, still said all the right things.

"There's no letdown,'' Derek Jeter said Sunday in Baltimore. "We don't have the luxury of letting down. We have to play.''

Instead, the Yankees seemed to sleep-walk through much of the first five innings and found themselves in a nightlong struggle. It ended on Jacoby Ellsbury's fourth hit of the night that brought in a new Yankees killer named Pedro Ciriaco for a 4-3 victory in front of 37,437 Tuesday night at Fenway Park.

With the Orioles' victory over the Rays, the Yankees again are tied with Baltimore atop the East at 79-62 with 21 games to play.

The last-place Red Sox improved to 64-78 but celebrated on the field as if they were tied for first.

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"That's what makes this game great, you never know what's going to happen,'' said Nick Swisher, who doubled in the first to snap an 0-for-28 slide. "It's not that I'm frustrated, but we know we can play better. We kind of got ourselves into a race right now. We've put ourselves in this position and we control it.''

Five times in the last eight days, the Yankees have taken a one-game lead but have not been able to extend it.

"We need to get on a run,'' Joe Girardi said. "It's been a number of reasons we haven't gotten on a run, it hasn't been just one aspect of the game. But we need to do it.''

Prohibiting the Yankees from scoring many runs Tuesday night was a horrendous performance with runners in scoring position.

Before Jeter's two-run double in the sixth gave Hiroki Kuroda a 3-2 lead, the Yankees had stranded eight and were 0-for-9 with RISP. They ended up 1-for-12 and left nine.

"We had a ton of opportunities to get the hits,'' Girardi said, "and we just didn't get the hits when we needed to.''

Kuroda almost immediately surrendered the lead he'd been given, allowing Dustin Pedroia's 15th homer with one out in the sixth to tie it at 3.

"The momentum was on our side,'' Kuroda said, "and since I gave up that home run, it shifted to the other side.''

Jon Lester had a 51/3-inning battle with the strike zone, mostly failing to find it, walking a season-worst seven, including three in the first, although the Yankees scored only once in the inning.

"Bottom line is we have to try and find ways to score more runs,'' said Jeter, who scored his 1,859th run in the first to tie Mel Ott for 12th on the all-time list. "You tip your cap to the pitcher sometimes, too, but [Lester] didn't have a lot of control. We had a lot of opportunities we let get away from us.''

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One opportunity that slipped away came in the ninth, when Swisher singled and was replaced by pinch runner Eduardo Nuñez. The speedier Nuñez, given the green light, was cut down by catcher Ryan Lavarnway on a close play at second.

"For whatever reason, he slowed down when he slid and that's why he was out,'' Girardi said.

Nuñez disagreed that he slowed down when he dove in head first. "I didn't think so,'' he said, adding, "I thought I was safe.''

Robertson (1-7), who was in his second inning of relief, took the loss.

Ciriaco, a rookie, started the rally with a one-out single, improving to 17-for-35 in his career against the Yankees.

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"Right now, he's on fire,'' said Robertson, who struck out the side in the eighth.

On fire against the Yankees, yes.

But coming off a 5-for-34 West Coast trip.

"He was struggling, I heard, coming in,'' Girardi said, shaking his head. "He just finds a way against us.''