Yankees 14, Red Sox 4

-- The New York Yankees were tense, anxious, borderline desperate. Behind them was Friday night's stunning ninth-inning loss with their likely Hall of Fame closer on the mound. Ahead of them was Sunday's date with the dastardly Pedro Martinez. Gaining on them quickly were the Boston Red Sox. And all around them was turmoil -- their rotation a mess, their manager still searching for a lineup, their owner contemplating gosh knows what in the event they collapse in a heap at the Red Sox's feet this month.

The Yankees began to feel better Saturday the instant they saw Red Sox starter Derek Lowe warming up before the top of the first inning. Lowe's second warm-up toss went all the way to the backstop. The next one almost followed. Lowe kept asking for a new ball, as if that was the problem.

It wasn't. And by the end of the first inning, the Yankees had scored five runs off Lowe, sending them on their way to a 14-4 win that chased away their demons for another day and pushed their lead over Boston in the American League East back to 31/2 games entering Sunday's series finale.

"Today," said Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams, a veteran of every championship of the Joe Torre era, "we just went back to playing the way we're supposed to be playing."

It helped that Lowe's body was completely disengaged from his brain, that Yankees right-hander Jon Lieber carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning, and that the Yankees built a nine-run lead in the second inning -- when Lowe was put out of his misery by a line drive off his lower shin -- and a 13-0 lead after five.

"We had such a huge win last night," Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said. "We were excited to come out and play today, and then a half-hour into it we're already trying to regroup."

In front of a sellout crowd of 55,153 at Yankee Stadium, Lowe's utterly lifeless start was the enduring mystery of the day. He rarely managed to throw the ball over the plate, and when he did the Yankees invariably crushed it.

And on the rare occasions when the Yankees tried to make an out, Lowe wouldn't let them -- such as the time he fielded John Olerud's comebacker with runners on the corners, looked the lead runner back to third base, then inexplicably threw to the same bag when it was already clear there was no play.

"Nothing went right," said Lowe. "The main issue was the ineffective pitching. I have no explanation for it."

Francona believed Lowe's mental error on Olerud's comebacker was the key play of the game. Take the easy out at first base, and perhaps Lowe escapes the inning with only three runs having scored.

"You can't go back and replay it," Francona said. "But I'd love to know what would have happened if we could go back and play it from there."

With so much on the line -- a win Saturday would have put the Red Sox in position to pull even with the Yankees in the loss column with another win on Sunday -- no one could have expected the Red Sox to play so poorly. In the midst of the pivotal first inning, Gold Glove shortstop Orlando Cabrera made a costly error on an ill-conceived throw to first base, and an inning later reliever Terry Adams failed to cover the bag on a grounder to first base.

"There's a reason it got out of hand," Francona said. "We didn't play good baseball."

Once Alex Rodriguez rifled a liner off Lowe's shin two batters into the second inning, the carnage mercifully was over. Lowe slouched off the field in shame -- the one-inning stint representing his shortest start in seven years -- and repaired to the seclusion of the visitors' clubhouse, toting a 5.19 ERA for the season.

Lowe, a free agent-to-be, is going to look good in the Baltimore Orioles' orange-and-black next season. It is virtually a certainty he will not be back in Boston, as the Red Sox prefer to focus their resources on more dependable assets such as Martinez and catcher Jason Varitek.

Lieber's exceptional performance -- after losing his no-hit bid with two outs in the seventh on David Ortiz's towering homer to left-center, he made it to the ninth before finally petering out -- was the latest encouraging development for the Yankees' tattered rotation, following consecutive scoreless outings by Mike Mussina and Javier Vazquez this week.

Suddenly, a postseason rotation of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, Mussina, Vazquez and Lieber (with recalcitrant wall-puncher Kevin Brown's availability still in question) no longer seems so flimsy.

Likewise, Torre is suddenly looking like a genius for the unconventional lineup tweak he made this week, putting Derek Jeter and Rodriguez in the first two spots of the batting order. On Saturday, they combined to reach base seven times and score six runs.

"We make a good tandem at the top," Rodriguez said. "What I like is that we get a lot of opportunities up there."

"Any time you've got A-Rod hitting second," said Gary Sheffield, who is hitting third these days, "it puts pressure on the pitcher."

The pressure in this series shifts day to day, sometimes inning to inning. The Red Sox have finished second in the AL East to the Yankees for six straight years and are trailing again this year, yet most observers here believe they are a better team than the Yankees right now.

On Saturday, the Yankees showed that may not be entirely true, and certainly not when the Red Sox have Lowe on the mound.

Yankees Derek Jeter, left, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Cairo are greeted by Hideki Matsui after Rodriguez's fifth-inning homer.Jon Lieber's performance -- carrying a no-hitter into the seventh inning -- stood in stark contrast to that of Boston counterpart Derek Lowe (1 inning, 6 earned runs).