The Cincinnati Red locker room was unnaturally silent and charged, like the low-pressure system that hung outside over dripping Veterans Stadium during a summer electric storm.

Tom Seaver and Joe Morgan looked around casually, Seaver spitting his tobacco juice, Morgan fiddling with his sanitary hose and both hiding their worry.

Low pressure outside, high pressure inside. Who needs a 2 1/2-hour rain delay on the road? Time to think. Time to fret. Time to unravel.

The Reds don't need it -- not after investing two hot, injury-filled months in chiseling 10 games off their deficit in the standings, clawing to within half a game of Houston.

Seaver and Morgan, the two future Hall of Famers, caught each other's eyes for an instant and knew what was needed to crack the stifling atmosphere. They had to start a fight.

The particular cause of their concern was a dozen of the young and lesser-known Reds crowded around the locker-room TV, adamantly imploring Montreal to beat Houston in the Monday night Game of the Week.

Hunched forward on folding chairs, they looked like a double row of earnest school children. Perched on the doorstep of first place, they could not hide their concern.

"Give him a slider away," blurted bespectacled Tommy Hume, the six- season loser in the bushes who leads the NL in ERA.

"Nah, a fast ball down," said Doug Bair, who once had four straight losing years at Charleston but now has nine wins and 15 saves in the thick of a pennant race.

Dave Collins and Ray Knight sat together, comparing notes. A year ago, both were considered career utility men. Now, with Ken Griffey out for the season, Collins is a regular and switch-hitting .330. Knight has replaced Pete Rose, and in some sense has surpassed him, hitting .307 with 67 RBI and fielding better than Rose ever could.

The day before, on Sunday, the Reds took a bus from New York to Philadelphia, listening to the Astros-Phillies game on the way. As soon as the Greyhound hit town, Knight grabbed a car and headed to the Vet to root for Houston's demise in person.

"I just couldn't stay away," explained Knight. "Not with us a half-game out."

Seaver and Morgan knew all the signs of mounting pennant pressure. Scoreboard watching is bad enough. But racing to parks to see other teams play, seeing 6-foot-8 J. R. Richard of Houston pitch a 12-strikeout two-hitter on national TV, who needs that?

"We got a real good bunch of guys on this team," began Seaver, loud enough so plenty could hear, "except for those two," he added, pointing his thumb over his shoulder at Morgan and his buddy, Dave Concepcion. "They're a pain."

"You're going to talk like that about us after we got you eight runs yesterday?" said Morgan, feigning injury.

"Six runs," Seaver snapped back over his shoulder."I had to drive in two of 'em myself."

"Did you hit two home runs?" asked the delighted Morgan. "I thought that was just a little single you got with two of us on base that scored. I musta missed your homers."

"Six runs," said Seaver pedantically, with finality.

"Well, six or eight," said Morgan, knowing a straight line on sight, "we've learned that's about how many you need now. We gotta save those 'ones' and 'twos' for the days when the strong, young arms are pitching."

Seaver let out a braying laugh, spit his tobacco juice, went back to his crossword puzzle. Within minutes, Johnny Bench had started a card game, while George Foster, Dan Driessen and Concepcion were shadow boxing each other.

The mood changed, the TV game faded from monumental to merely of interest. "Every game is urgent now," said Bench.

The Reds, who had won six in a row and 24 of 32 entering last night's play, are an unusual and remarkable team -- one that is both utterly split and totally united.

"I've never seen a team anything like this," said reserve Paul Blair, a student of champions in Baltimore and New York. "We got a bunch of guys going to Cooperstown and we got a bunch of guys that had to fight like hell ever to get out of the minors. Yet they fit together.

"Maybe the truly great players and the ones who have to battle extra hard to make the majors have one thing in common -- they got the heart."

Certainly, few teams have ever climbed such a mountain of adversity to stay in a pennant race.

Manager Sparky Anderson was fired after last season and Rose was lost to free-agentry. Starters Bill Bonham and Seaver have both been sidelined for a month. George Foster has missed 40 games. Griffey, hitting .316, will miss 67. Every Red regular has missed at least five games with injuries. Morgan, always the team key, is hitting .245.

The old Big Red Machine could never have survived such cripplings. It was a team divided between Anderson's superstars and a dozen or more scrubs with no role.

"When Sparky was here, this was a 12- or 13-man club," said Knight. "He stuck with the regulars and didn't talk much to the others."

This crew is truly McNamara's Band -- Manager John McNamara, that is. As drab as Anderson was sparky, McNamara, 47, cultivates and coddles fringe players, and nurses a pitching staff. The stars he leaves alone. His years of batting .171 in Sacramento hardly prepare him to discuss hitting with Bench.

The departure of Rose, following that of Anderson and Tony Perez, has relieved the feelings among several younger Reds that they were suffocating. "For instance, the publicity just never got down to players like Ken Griffey, who has a .310 career average, or Concepcion," said Morgan.

"Since Foster has missed so many games this year, I think Davey is our MVP," said Morgan.

The Reds are careful to call Concepcion by his favored nickname, as in, "Hey, where's the 'Best shortstop in Baseball'?"

Although it may shock some, Concepcion, 31, may be at the midpoint of a career that deserves to put him in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps only on the Reds could he have been so unnoticed. Now, he is a bona fide .300-hitting No. 3 batter.

If any contender in baseball is rich in leaders, it is the Reds. On the field, Foster is, again this year, the best RBI man in baseball with 77 in only 327 at-bats. "When George is 'dealing,'" said Morgan, "nobody's that awesome."

Off the diamond, Cincinnati is just as rich. Seaver is the epitome of poise. "Failure is a good teacher," said Seaver. "The illumination came for me in '74 (an 11-11 year). I came home after losing one day and my 3-year-old daughter had seen me pitch on TV. She said, 'Daddy, you won. You won.'

"As far as she knew, I was her daddy and I won. She could care less. It's hard to explain but I haven't had much trouble facing failures since."