"When I looked down there, I didn't see the bunt sign," Willie Stargell said.

"So I closed my eyes and swung and the next thing I knew, it was gone."

The oldest Pirate hit a three-run home run in the 11th inning tonight to carry Pittsburg to a 5-2 victory over feeble Cincinnati in the first game of the National League championship series.

With runners on first and second and no one out in the 11th, Stargell might have been asked to put down a sacrifice bunt. A really dumb manager might have asked that. The percentages say a bunt there produces a run more often than not. But Chuck Tanner, the Pirate manager, sat silent.

And on the first pitch from the Reds' best reliever, Tom Hume, Stargell sent a fly ball floating toward right center field. High, it flew. Lazily, it sailed. The center fielder took up residence at the base of the wall, waiting, waiting, waiting for the ball to fall out of the night.

It fell over the fence. With Stargell's home run, and with relief pitching from four men who allowed the Reds only two hits the last four innings, the Pirates "did it in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings, that's been our year," Tanner said. "A typical way we've had to play."

The best road team in the National League this season, with 50 victories against only 31 defeats, the Pirates have taken a most important step toward the World Series by winning tonight's playoff opener in the Red ballpark. Now the Pirates need win only two more games -- and after Wednesday afternoon's game here, the last three games are in Pittsburgh.

Not only that, the Pirates won tonight without doing anything extraordinary. The Reds gave it their best shot with the league's best pitcher, Tom Seaver, going eight strong innings and leaving with the game tied at 2. It is doubtful if the Reds will find another pitcher so effective against a Pittsburgh lineup that outscored its opponents by a run a game this season.

The Reds can not score of late. Over the last month, they scored little more than three times a game. Tonight's performance was an extension of that habit; only once did the bearers of the Big Red Machine tradition manage two hits in a row; only once did they have two hits in an inning; only three times did they work men into scoring position.

So desperate are the Reds that their manager, John McNamara, made a decision that he may have to explain all winter. With the game tied at 2, he pinch-hit for Seaver leading off the last of the eighth inning. Against a right-handed reliever, Enrique Romo.

McNamara later said Seaver was not tired and, in fact, had said he could go on. It would have seemed the right thing to do, for Seaver had the Pirates in hand. Save for a third-inning home run by Phil Garner and a second run set up when right fielder Dave Collins misplayed Omar Moreno's single into a triple, Seaver dominated the Pirates. After that third inning, he gave up only two more hits, facing only 13 hitters in four innings.

Why pinch-hit for Seaver? As the leadoff man in the last of the eighth, he was less than critical in the offense. And he is one of baseball's best hitting pitchers, 12 for 76 this season.

"Leading off the eighth, we needed one run," McNamara said in explanation.

As good as Seaver was, he was no better than the Pirate starter, John Candelaria. Though he has not started in two weeks because of a sore rib muscle, Candelaria gave the Reds only five hits in seven innings. The sore ribs caused him to ask for relief.

"He's a money pitcher," Tanner said of the big left-hander who is 6-3 lifetime against the Reds. "Anytime there's money on the game, Candy's the man I'd like on the mound."

Candelaria made one mistake, a belt-high fast ball to George Foster, the Reds' bomber. Foster sent the mistake 400 feet. The two-run homer, Foster's 31st of 1979, tied the game at 2-2 in the fourth inning. With Seaver and Candelaria out of the game, the decision was left to the bullpens.

And there, too, Tanner beat McNamara. The Pirates' brain used four men, never letting any overstay his effectiveness. McNamara, though, stayed with Hume only -- even letting the right-hander pitch to the big lefties, Dave Parker and Stargell, in the fatal 11th.


"Hume's been our No. 1 man out of the bullpen," McNamara said. "We wanted to stay with him."

The difference in tactics was vividly illustrated in the 11th.

Hume, the Reds' top relief pitcher with 17 saves, had been good for three innings, giving up only one hit. In the 11th, Tim Foli reached him for a single. That brought up Parker, as fearsome a left-handed hitter as a right-handed pitcher ever had nightmares over.

Parker poked a single to left. Now the Pirates had men on first and second with no one out. Surely McNamara would come with a left-hander against the free-swinging Stargell.

McNamara chose to sit silent. Stargell chose to hit the ball six miles.

"If I hadn't hit it," said Stargell, who believes these Pirates are marked for greatness, "someone else would have."

Maybe. But then maybe someone would have hit one for Cincinnati in the bottom of the 11th if Chuck Tanner had not made the moves McNamara passed on.

Grant Jackson, a left-hander, had retired five straight Reds after succeeding Kent Tekulve, who had produced five outs in facing only four hitters.

But then Jackson gave up a two-out single to Dave Concepcion and walked Foster.

Tanner called for the right-hander Don Robinson, most often a starting pitcher, to face the right-handed hitter, Bench. Bench walked on a 3-and-2 pitch, loading the bases, and it came to Robinson against another right-hander, Ray Knight.

On four pitches, Robinson struck out Knight to end the game.

"We want to prove that we belong here," Stargell said when reminded that the Pirates have lost three straight playoffs to the Reds. "A lot of people have said we don't belong here. We read the paper this morning and everyone was giving the Reds the advantage at each position.

"We pasted that story up in the clubhouse. If the Reds do beat us, they'll have to put up a helluva fight to beat a helluva team."