On the afternoon of July 24, in the third inning of a game at Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox trailed the New York Yankees by three runs on the scoreboard and by 91/2 games in the standings. The American League East race was very close to being finished, with the Yankees making plans for October and the Red Sox sinking into their annual abyss -- albeit a little earlier than usual.

Then Jason Varitek shoved Alex Rodriguez in the face, and everything began to shift.

And oh my goodness, look what we have now. We had the Red Sox surging like madmen behind 10 straight wins until finally losing to Texas on Saturday. We have the Yankees as vulnerable as they have been in years, having this week absorbed the most lopsided loss in franchise history, and then, three days later, seeing their top starting pitcher break his hand by punching a wall in frustration.

And we have, above all, a playoff race once again, with the Red Sox -- who were a season-high 101/2 games back on Aug. 16 -- now trailing by only 21/2.

In Boston, the surge is sparking hopeful comparisons to the infamous 1978 collapse, when the Red Sox blew a 141/2-game lead to the Yankees, losing in a one-game playoff decided by Bucky Dent's homer. Only this time, the roles are reversed.

Meantime, in New York, the tightening race is causing incomprehensible acts of frustration. When you are being paid $15 million a year, as Kevin Brown is, you don't jeopardize your health and your team's fortunes by throwing your fist into a concrete wall, a move that will force the right-hander to undergo surgery.

How did it get to this point? A search for turning points in this fascinating chapter of the storied Red Sox-Yankees rivalry turns up two key dates.

The first was the aforementioned Varitek shove, when the Red Sox' hard-nosed catcher went upside the head of the Yankees' most expensive, most pretty-faced superstar, precipitating a benches-clearing incident and igniting the Red Sox, who came back to win on Bill Mueller's dramatic walk-off homer against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

After that game, Red Sox President Larry Lucchino -- the man who famously labeled the Yankees the "Evil Empire" -- reportedly sought out Varitek in the home clubhouse and thanked him "for waking us up."

Perhaps the resulting turnaround would have happened anyway, but the fact remains the Red Sox are 28-10 since, having swept the Anaheim Angels out of Fenway Park this week in the sort of performance that should scare every other contending team in the league.

Those who prefer analytical explanations to symbolic ones would point to the second key date in this remarkable turnaround: July 31. That was the date the Red Sox pulled off a monumental trade -- sending away beloved star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra for a pair of primarily defensive-minded infielders -- while the Yankees whiffed on their big swing for Randy Johnson.

While the Red Sox' rocket-fueled offense has scarcely missed Garciaparra's bat (and their clubhouse has scarcely missed his standoffish presence), their infield defense -- and by extension, their pitching -- has benefited greatly from the additions of shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz.

At the time of the trade, the Red Sox led the league in unearned runs allowed, with 74. Since the trade, they have allowed only seven. It is probably not too much of a stretch to argue that the late-season improvement by sinker-ball specialist Derek Lowe (five straight wins) is at least partly attributable to the greater confidence he undoubtedly has in the team's upgraded defense.

What's particularly scary about the Red Sox is that an effective Lowe pitching behind Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling would give them a postseason rotation to rival any in the league, including Oakland's vaunted Big Three.

As for the Yankees, their only trade-deadline upgrades were a fraudulent all-star pitcher (Esteban Loaiza, who has since been banished to the bullpen) and a washed-up first baseman (John Olerud, who nonetheless has performed well as Jason Giambi's fill-in).

The day after the humiliating 22-0 loss to Cleveland, the Yankees were greeted by a sign on the marquee at Yankee Stadium saying "WINNERS NEVER QUIT, QUITTERS NEVER WIN" -- pretty original stuff there, Mr. Steinbrenner -- and were also serenaded with both a clip from the movie "Rudy" and the theme song from "Rocky" during the game.

Right. So the team with the payroll that is a good 50 percent higher than any other in the game is now appropriating the symbols of the classic underdog?

Well, maybe that's what the Yankees are, despite their riches and their still-solid lead in the standings. If the postseason began today, their Game 1 starter -- at least based on recent performance -- would probably be retread right-hander Orlando Hernandez, even if Brown were healthy. Yikes.

One American League scout this week summed up the teams this way: "For the long haul, I'd still take the Yankees to win the division, because their schedule is easier and they can just beat up on teams. But in October, I'd take the Red Sox in a heartbeat, just because I like Martinez and Schilling a lot more than any two [starters] the Yankees could throw out there."

And that was before Brown hurt himself.

No Yankees team has ever blown a division lead of six games or more. But six games remain between the Yankees and Red Sox this month.

If the Yankees think they are frustrated now, wait and see what happens if the Red Sox catch and pass them, and the guy in the turtleneck and sport coat in the owner's box clears his throat.

A Wild Scene

Bud Selig's favorite creation -- the wild card -- has turned the NL playoff race into a fascinating, teeming mess of humanity, with the top five teams now bunched together within 21/2 games of each other entering Saturday.

The latest entrants are the surging Florida Marlins (seven straight wins) and Houston Astros (eight straight wins), both of whom appeared kaput just a matter of weeks ago.

"No, it's not hard to believe," Astros Manager Phil Garner told reporters this week. "But I don't want to get caught up in that. The whole thing you want to stay focused on is what we're doing, and we're doing the things that begat winning."

With the Giants and Padres going backward and the Cubs treading water, the Marlins are looking like the smart pick, due to strong starting pitching and a bullpen keyed by newly acquired set-up man Guillermo Mota, who set down all 17 batters he faced in the Marlins' four-game sweep of the Mets this week.

Kevin Brown, the Yankees' $15 million ace, faces surgery after a temper tantrum.Jason Varitek provided the Red Sox a wake-up call when he got in the face of Alex Rodriguez.The Yankees were greeted with encouraging words from the boss after a 22-0 loss to Cleveland.