Red Sox 5, Yankees 3

-- There should be red-white-and-blue bunting adorning the faded green balconies of Fenway Park. There should be dignitaries on hand, and special tickets printed up, and laser-painted logos decorating the grass near home plate. Because what this is now -- as the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees stand tied for the American League East title after six months of baseball, with two head-to-head games left in the season -- is a playoff series, in all but the most literal sense of the word.

It is a best two-out-of-three series now, to be exact, following the Red Sox' 5-3 win Friday night in front of 34,832 raucous fans at the lyric bandbox on Yawkey Way. There are the two games here Saturday and Sunday. And there is, if necessary, a 163rd game on Monday at Yankee Stadium. First team to win two earns the division title.

And the loser? Well, that's not so simple. They could back their way into the wild card. They could face the Cleveland Indians in a one-game playoff for the wild card. Or they could be finished. Partly, it depends on what happens in Cleveland, where the Indians lost to the Chicago White Sox in a 13-inning thriller in the first of three games Friday night, falling a game behind Boston and New York.

Here, at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox have the best home record in the majors (53-26), and where the narrow streets around the stadium were full of wandering, face-painted pilgrims some four hours before game time, Boston pulled even in the standings behind the pitching of a former legend-in-pinstripes, David Wells, who held his former teammates to three runs on six hits over seven solid innings.

And so, the rivalry that in the last three years alone has given us "Who's your daddy?" and "Aaron [Bleeping] Boone," and "the Evil Empire," and Pedro's takedown of Zim, and A-Rod's face full of Jason Varitek's glove-leather, and the grandest comeback/biggest collapse in postseason history seems as if it is preparing to produce yet another delicious moment. At least one.

On Saturday afternoon, New York ace Randy Johnson will face Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Sunday will find Mike Mussina taking on Curt Schilling. And a one-game playoff on Monday, in all likelihood, would pit Shawn Chacon against Bronson Arroyo -- unless one or both of those pitchers are pressed into duty over the weekend.

"We're dead even," said Red Sox Manager Terry Francona. "You feel better after a win. But it's not as if we can live it up and pound our chests. We have to come back [Saturday] and try to beat maybe the best pitcher in the league."

When Wells pitched in the Bronx, he earned a reputation as a big-game pitcher, based largely on his heroics in 1998, when he went 4-0 in the postseason for the 125-win Yankees.

"We know he lives for this kind of situation," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said before the game. "I don't think it's something you learn. I think you have to be born with that."

"I like the ball in a big game," Wells said. "I'm not afraid to take it."

On Friday night, Wells (15-7) struggled to escape the first inning with only one run scoring, then made it through the seventh, allowing only a two-run homer to Derek Jeter, before turning the ball over to his bullpen. Closer Mike Timlin, tying a franchise record with his 80th appearance of the season, secured the final four outs for his 13th save.

Somehow, after beginning the season with a rotation that costs more than most teams' entire payrolls, the Yankees wound up entrusting their season to rookie right-hander Chien-Ming Wang, who might have been okay were it not for a half-dozen walks -- including an intentional one to MVP candidate David Ortiz in the middle of an ugly sixth inning that proved to be the critical juncture of the game.

At their worst, the Yankees often appear to be something less than the sum of their formidable parts, their team not as solid as the combined statistics of their collection of superstars.

Take first baseman Jason Giambi. A true slugger, with 32 homers this season, Giambi nonetheless cost his team two critical runs -- one with his base running, when he somehow failed to score from first on Hideki Matsui's double that trickled to the wall in right in the top of the sixth inning, and another with his glove, when he botched a simple charge-and-throw-home grounder with the bases loaded in the bottom half of the inning -- helping the Red Sox to a three-run inning that pushed their lead to 5-1.

"We didn't make one play in that inning," Torre grumbled, his face weary.

And so, after 160 games, the Yankees and Red Sox are tied atop the AL East standings at 94-66. And what memorable phrase, what unforgettable image will sear itself into history in the coming days, in a postseason that has begun early?

The Red Sox' David Ortiz slides safely into home as Yankees catcher Jorge Posada can't handle the throw from Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi.A scoreboard operator at Fenway Park changes the standings after the Red Sox moved into a first-place tie with the Yankees in the AL East.