"Are the Yankees back in it?" Boston's Coco Crisp said. "They were never out of it."
Riding high with a 12-game lead in the AL East less than two weeks ago, the Red Sox are just seven games ahead after losing their second game in a row to Kansas City, 6-5 on Wednesday night.
Still, they've been in first place for 95 consecutive days and have the biggest lead in any of the six divisions.
"You know what?" Boston shortstop Julio Lugo asked. "They still have to catch us. We don't have to catch anybody."
But New York has cut five games off the lead in just 13 days by winning eight of their last 10 games. The Red Sox are 3-7 in that stretch after dropping two of three to the Royals, who are in the AL Central cellar despite winning 12 of their last 19 games.
"You come into Fenway Park, which is one of the special places to play, against a team that has the best record in the American League," Kansas City manager Buddy Bell said. "You should feel pretty good."
The Red Sox did have the AL's top mark after beating the Royals 4-0 on Monday night but have slipped behind Detroit. That's where the Royals are headed for the final stop on a tough three-city road trip that began in Cleveland.
"We know we're facing unbelievable teams," Royals closer Octavio Dotel said, "but, at the same time, we know we can get them out."
Dotel wrapped up a strong performance by Kansas City's bullpen when he retired Manny Ramirez on a popup to second base for the final out after David Ortiz singled. It was his 10th save in 13 chances. Odalis Perez (5-8) went five innings, allowing all of Boston's runs, to win for the first time in five starts.
"I don't want to face either of those guys. This is the best one-two punch in the league," Dotel said. "I was so happy when he popped out."
After managing just one hit in the first three innings, they scored twice in the fourth, then went ahead 6-4 in the fifth when they chased Tavarez (5-8).
In his last five starts, he is 0-4 with a 7.71 ERA and has allowed 42 hits in 23 1/3 innings. He didn't make it past the fifth inning in four of those outings. In his previous seven starts, he was 3-0 with a 3.07 ERA and gave up 37 hits in 44 innings.
"I think I changed my game plan" in the fourth, Tavarez said. "I wasn't attacking the hitter like I was doing earlier."
Trailing 4-2 after four, Kansas City pounded Tavarez in the fifth. David DeJesus singled and scored on Mark Grudzielanek's double. Mark Teahen reached on third baseman Mike Lowell's error and Butler followed with a two-run double. Alex Gordon singled in the final run of the inning.
Butler also drove in the Royals' first two runs of their 9-3 win Tuesday night with a double in the fourth.
Ramirez cut the lead to 6-5 in the bottom of the fifth with his 14th homer of the season.
The Red Sox had two good chances to tie the game.
With runners at first and second in the seventh, second baseman Grudzielanek made a sliding grab of a grounder headed to right field and threw out Kevin Youkilis at first for the third out.
"That's a game changer," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.
After Crisp tripled with two outs in the eighth, Lugo flied out.
"Taking two games from these guys is a lot of fun and says a lot about our team," Kansas City's Jason LaRue said.
The Royals had taken a 2-0 lead in the fourth on Ross Gload's sacrifice fly and Gordon's RBI single.
That wasn't enough to keep the Yankees from gaining ground.
"If we don't continue to play well, they're going to catch us," Crisp said.
- Butler has seven RBI in the last six games.
- Lugo extended his hitting streak to eight games after going 3-for-46 in his previous 18.
- Boston RHP Mike Timlin pitched 2 1/3 perfect innings, extending his scoreless streak to 13 2/3 innings over nine games.
- Varitek threw out two runners trying to steal for the second time in 11 days.