Tim Foli says he was high-strung. The Pirate shortstop is being nice to himself.

In the bad old days with Montreal and the Mets, they called him Crazy Horse. It wasn't because he had four legs and ate oats. He sought perfection as a baseball player and when imperfection spoiled a day, Tim Foli expressed dismay by punching someone.

"My theory was that nobody ever died from a bloody nose," he said today.

If the Pirates win Game 3 here Friday afternoon and complete a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds in the National League championship series, romantics will celebrate for the old sweet warrior, Willie Stargell, a statesman who at 38 yet swings a stick big enough to hit 33 home runs this year.

Realists love Dave Parker.

"Except for Dave Parker, who is better than human beings, all ballplayers have their pluses and minuses," said Phil Garner, the Pirate second baseman. A giant outfielder who dives for balls and throws out anyone foolish enough to run on him, Parker also is a two-time batting champion who this season hit .310 with 25 home runs and 94 runs batted in.

Students of tactics pore over the work of Chuck Tanner, the Pittsburgh manager, for he is daring enough to make Bill Madlock -- stumpy Bill Madlock -- a base stealer (32 this year, double his previous best in five seasons). The hit-and-run, the bunt-and-run, platooning catchers and infielders, using pitchers for one hitter only -- Tanner tries everything.

With eight live arms in the bullpen -- The Octopus -- The Pirates' pitching in this championship series has been sensational. What the starters, John Candelaria and Jim Bibby, began in Games 1 and 2, relievers Kent Tekulve, Enrique Romo, Grant Jackson and Don Robinson finished. Tekulve, Romo and Jackson had 250 work days this season, winning 28 games and savinng 50.

Who, then, is the most valuable Pirate? To say nay to Stargell is to invite disbarment from Planet Earth. Parker is unapproachable, the only underpaid $800,000 player. Tanner's genius is obvious, particularly in the handling of The Octopus.

Which brings us back to Tim Foli.

He is the man.

Crazy Horse moved the Pirates up from their second-place finishes of 1976, '77 and '78 to first in the league's East Division this season.

A lifetime .244 hitter before this year, Foli hit .288, his best ever by 24 points, with other career highs in hits (153) and runs batted in (65). He struck out only 14 times. As the second hitter in the lineup, he helped leadoff man Omar Moreno steal 77 bases and score 110 runs.

And all that offense is the least of Foli's work.

In those second-place years, a lot of people believed the Pirates should be renamed the Steelers because it was plain they played with gloves made of steel. You could hear the clang whenever a pirate stabbed at a ground ball. Last year's shortstop, Frank Taveras, made 38 errors and Garner, at second and third, kicked in with 28 more.Even the catcher, Ed Ott, had 16 errors.

"We lost 12 to 15 games every year because of our defense," Garner said today.

"My arm wasn't worth 10 cents last year," Ott said. That explained only part of his errors, he added.

"There were times when I'd throw to second and one or two guys could have caught the throw but didn't. And the ball would go into center field and I'd get the error."

In mid-April this spring, the Pirates traded Taveras to the Mets for Foli, who had fallen out of favor because he was determined to become a free agent. With Foli's arrival, and the later addition of Madlock at third and Garner's installation at second, the Pirates suddenly became an infield of velvet gloves.

"We're 100 percent better," Garner said.

"I don't think we'd be here today," said Ott, polishing his shoes before a workout for a game that might put the Pirates in the World Series, "if it wasn't for Tim Foli."

Instead of the 38 errors by Taveras, Foli made 15. And with the baseball sense that comes to bright shortstops who hit .244 for a decade, he brought an awareness of game situations to Pittsburgh that the Pirates had never known. Foli played five years for Gene Mauch at Montreal, and the genius rubbed off.

"Tim is the catalyst," Garner said. "He's our quarterback."

"I can play shortstop with anybody," Foli said. "People are always talking about I don't have good range. Because of being a .240 hitter, I've had to study the game. Gene made me study the game. I used to be hard-headed, and he finally told me, 'You're not going to be in the Hall of Fame. You have a chance to be a great shortstop, a chance to play on a winning team, but you're not going to be in the Hall of Fame. So don't try to be perfect. Do what you can do.'

"So I study the hitters. I've had to learn the pitchers. How is he going to approach Johnny Bench with two outs? With a man on third and one out? Can I move a step toward the hole? Should I plug a hole where the outfielder has moved? If I'm already in the hole and field a ground ball, my range is just as good as a guy running all the way to get there."

Foli is 28, 6 feet, 175 pounds. He wears glasses. He has been a pro a dozen seasons. For a decade, he worked on bad teams, which didn't help his disposition any.

"I wanted to win so bad," he said. That is why he punched some people at second base, he said.

"If anything happened around second, well . . . , he said. "I had a broken jaw, three broken ribs, a wrist. I've had half my body torn up. But I have to play like that, I'm not a finesse player, I can't look pretty out there."

Tim Foli, then, is the classic case of the guy who does the little things. With Montreal and the Mets, little things didn't move the team up in the standings.

"I'm not a superstar, I couldn't carry a club by myself, I'm not going to hit 50 home runs. But I always felt the little things I could do would help a good club.

"Because I have good people around me now, I don't have to go outside myself, to try to do things I can't do. A single here is as big as a home run somewhere else."

With Parker and Stargell hitting behind him, Foli gets nothing but good pitches to hit. No one will walk a .244 hitter to get at those monsters. So Foli's average is up, which is nice, but the nicer thing by far is that he no longer is Crazy Horse.

"Through the Lord, I've been able to curb my aggressions," Foli said, "and set my priorities straight. I realize baseball is important, but so is my wife, so is my family, so is my future. Until I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior two years ago, all I had was my baseball. I lived and died baseball.

"And when you're 30 games out in August, you're dying a lot more than your're living."