PITTSBURGH -- It was a winnable game for the Pittsburg Pirates.
But some overly aggressive baserunning, questionable strateg and two Cincinnati home runs doomed them to a 5-3 defeat last night and brought the Reds within one victory of the National League championship.
A two-run, seventh-inning homer by Chris Sabo off Bob Walk wa the telling blow for the Western Division champions, who are 6-2 at Three Rivers Stadium this year and have won nine of their past 12 here.
The Reds have hit four home runs in two victories here -- Pau O'Neill connected last night with the bases empty -- but it was their defense that stole the scene.
Center fielder Billy Hatcher threw out Sid Bream at home plat during the first Pirates rally, keeping the game at 2-2 in the fourth inning.
"That gave me a tremendous lift, as big a one as I've had all year," said winning pitcher Jose Rijo.
But it was no bigger than the one reliever Randy Myers receive in the eighth after Jay Bell knocked out Rijo with a homer to bring Pittsburgh to within 4-3.
With one out, Bobby Bonilla drove a shot off the left-center-fiel wall, and Hatcher fell against the barrier trying to make the catch.
Bonilla, the potential tying run, headed for third . . . and was thrown out by left fielder Eric Davis, who had recovered the carom in medium-deep center.
"Eric made an unbelievable play. He came out of nowhere an threw that ball from 300 feet away," said Sabo. "I never saw the ball until the last second. We were very fortunate it didn't hit him [Bonilla]."
Reds manager Lou Piniella said: "I knew Davis was ver accurate. It was just a question of whether it would hit Bonilla on the bounce.
"But defense has been our constant all year. Whenever I mak out the lineup, the first consideration is to put the best defensive team on the field."
The Reds led the league in fielding percentage.
As it was, the play reversed the flow of the game. Barry Bonds followed with a single that, had everything else been the same, would have pulled Pittsburgh even at 4.
But, with Bonds at second via a stolen base, Myers struck ou the left-handed-hitting Bream to end the inning. Right-handed pinch hitters Gary Redus and Carmelo Martinez watched from the bench.
In the ninth, Cincinnati added a run on a bases-loaded sacrific fly by pinch hitter Luis Quinones, and Rob Dibble finished off the Pirates with a 1-2-3 inning that included two strikeouts.
Before the game, the almost-unhittable Dibble reiterated his desire to be a closer . . . or at least to be paid like one.
Piniella said: "We'll address that later. He didn't hurt himself b going out in the ninth and getting three straight, but we have other things to attend to. Hopefully, we're going to the Fall Classic."
The Pirates led for the first three innings, making it six for th entire series, thanks to a double by Wally Backman and two ground outs.
But the Reds never trailed again after O'Neill, who sat out Gam 3, homered and Sabo knocked in his first of three runs with a sacrifice fly in the fourth.
O'Neill said he accepted the fact that he didn't start the thir game, against left-hander Zane Smith, despite his Game 2 heroics.
"It's a playoff situation," he said. "You like to be in there ever day. But Lou put a lineup on the field that won, so it was the right decision."
Pittsburgh extracted only one run out of two singles, a doubl and an intentional walk in the fourth, when Hatcher cut down Bream, then the Pirates fell behind again when Sabo connected after a Hal Morris single to start the Reds' seventh.
Pirates manager Jim Leyland refused to second-guess Bonilla' decision to seek third base in the crucial inning.
"He was being aggressive. It was a great play," said Leyland. "The ball was in front of him, and he thought he could make it. I don't question that."
Bonilla said: "You don't expect the left fielder to throw you out at third on a ball hit to center field. I hesitated just a little coming around first base, and that might have cost me. It seems like everything they're doing is working. It was the defensive play of the year."
On the Bream play, Leyland said: "You've got to score Sid on that play. You've got the pitcher coming up next. I'm not going to hold him up and have the pitcher try to drive him in. He [coach Gene Lamont] was definitely right in sending Sid."
But neither play worked out, and it is why the Reds have th Pirates on the precipice.
"We haven't won anything yet," said Sabo. "We've got to kee fighting and clawing to score runs."
Piniella said: "We're certainly in the position we want. We can' get complacent. They've got their ace [Doug Drabek] going, and they're going to be ready."