Red Sox finish strong

Red SoxYankees

Big Step: Derek Lowe overcame some poor first-inning defense and pitched 6 2/3 good innings Sunday as the Red Sox beat the Yankees 9-6 in the rubber match of the three-game series in Fenway Park. In the last turn through the Boston rotation, both Lowe and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield pitched effectively; their performance could be the difference if the Red Sox are to be a threat in September and October, with Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez at the front end of the rotation.

Big Doubts: The Yankees have the second best record in baseball, they have a huge lead in the AL East, they've got the easiest finishing schedule in the majors -- and their pitching is a mess. After a few weeks of dominating teams like Tampa Bay and Detroit, Jose Contreras was awful in a high-pressure atmosphere on Sunday -- again. He constantly fell behind in the ball-strike count, shook off signs and stepped off the mound repeatedly, as if he was searching for confidence.

Contreras required four innings before gaining any command of his forkball, and was charged with eight runs in 5 1/3 innings, getting hammered for three homers. The Yankees need Contreras to be reliable in October, in moments of high anxiety, and this could have been a nice dress rehearsal for him. Instead, doubts about his internal fortitude will now almost certainly trail him into the postseason.

So this is the state of the Yankees' rotation: Javier Vazquez is struggling to get some life on his fastball and has a 7.29 ERA in July; Kevin Brown is on the disabled list, and may or may not be activated later this week; Mike Mussina reportedly suffered a setback this weekend as he played catch, aggravating his sore elbow; the 39-year-old Orlando Hernandez has pitched well in three starts after missing last year; Jon Lieber is pitching but has trouble maintaining arm strength; and Tanyon Sturtze injured the pinky finger of his right hand in Saturday's fight and can't throw his changeup.

And the Yankees' bullpen, the backbone of the team for the first four months, has been heavily taxed, with Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera ranked 1-2-3 in the American League in appearances; all three appeared to have subpar stuff against Boston.

No wonder owner George Steinbrenner is obsessing about Randy Johnson.

Big Unit: Steinbrenner's pursuit of Johnson is frenzied. Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo could probably get himself written into Steinbrenner's will, if he played his cards right, or at least have part of Florida deeded to him. And Johnson could probably get a 101-year extension, if he wants it, by trying to push for a trade to the Yankees. There might not be a comparable situation in Steinbrenner's 31-year ownership, when his team had such a clear need for a particular player -- and Steinbrenner is completely at the mercy of a Colangelo, whom he offended 2½ years ago by nudging David Wells into breaking an oral agreement with Arizona.

The next six days will be all about Johnson for the Yankees.

Big Bat: Boston's Kevin Millar slammed four homers in the three games.

Big Injuries: Both teams are hurting coming out of the Big Series. The Red Sox lost Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek and Curtis Leskanic over the weekend, and at the end of Sunday night's game, closer Keith Foulke absorbed a batted ball with his right shin. The Yankees lost Jason Giambi and Sturtze, and Quantrill looks like his right knee -- injured on Opening Day -- is killing him.

Big Fight: After Alex Rodriguez was hit by a pitch in the third inning of Saturday's game, he began shouting at Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo. Varitek stepped in, and A-Rod shouted a favorite four-letter epithet at the catcher before challenging him to a fight. Varitek went at him, and both benches cleared. A-Rod, Kenny Lofton, Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler and Varitek were ejected; Sturtze, the Yankees' starting pitcher in this game, got a choke hold on Kapler, and by the time their scrap was over, Sturtze had hurt his pinky and had a cut on the left side of his face, an injury that appeared to have been caused by Boston DH David Ortiz.

Big Absence: Pedro Martinez has been very brave when he is throwing a baseball at hitters standing in the batter's box, but for the second straight time, Martinez was among the last players to emerge from the Red Sox dugout during a brawl with the Yankees. Curt Schilling, on the other hand, was among the first to reach A-Rod and Varitek.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released Aug. 17, and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.