Best-of-five series: Tuesday, at Houston, 8:15; Wednesday, at Houston, 1:05; Friday, at Los Angeles, 4:05; Saturday, at Los Angeles, 8:15 (if necessary); Sunday, at Los Angeles, 4:05 (if necessary). Today's television-radio: WRC-TV-4, WMAR-TV2: WTOP-1500.

Of all the pairings that bring a twinkle to the eye of the post-season fan, the best is the nationally televised first-game meeting tonight of the greatest rookie phenom in history, Fernando Valenzuela of Los Angeles, and baseball's only five-time no-hit pitcher, Nolan Ryan of Houston.

Valenzuela, still only 20 and the youngest player in the major leagues, is the master of craftiness and control; the southpaw with eight rookie shutouts pitches like a 40-year-old screw-balling master.

At 34, Ryan finally is beginning to learn those intuitive pitching mysteries that seem to have been granted to Valenzuela at birth. Ryan's league-leading 1.79 ERA this season is testament to his ability to learn control and improve his consistency. However, the Ryan of '81 also is an indictment of the Ryan of the previous dozen seasons who had a 178-169 record. Why did it take the pitcher with perhaps the best stuff in history so long to learn his trade?

Valenzuela and Ryan epitomize the opposite ends of their craft -- the ultimate pitcher against the ultimate thrower. As if more were needed, Valenzuela has pitched two shutouts against Houston this season, while just 10 days ago, Ryan pitched a no-hitter against the Dodgers.

Ironically, this wonderful piece of theater should never have happened.

Just ask the folks of Cincinnati. They know that a Houston-L.A. series is a joke. At the Reds' final game Sunday, attended by 31,764, a large pennant was raised by the club, bearing the words, "Baseball's Best Record."

Not only are the Reds the only team is baseball with a percentage over .600 (66-42), but, in a continuous season, they would have finished four games ahead of any team in the NL. Their full-year mark is six games better than the usurping Astros. This is the team with Tom Seaver (14-2), George Foster (90 RBI) and two future Hall of Famers named Bench and Conception. Noooo, they don't belong in the playoffs.

Despite the glamor of the initial meeting between Valenzuela and Ryan, this Dodger-Astro series really is a showdown between two decimated teams. Perhaps that is only fair.

The Dodgers are in worse shape. Their long-running, stand-pat infield finally has fallen apart from ceaseless use. Shortstop Bill Rusell, nursing three injuries, returned to the lineup on Sunday. Dave Lopes will try to play for the first time in weeks in the playoff opener. Ron Cey still hasn't taken batting practice after suffering a broken forearm. He might be back by the league championship series. Once-great Reggie Smith now is a pinch hitter.

Except for their infant pitching, the Dodgers, who finished the year 9-15, are an old, punchless team. But the Angelenos do have pitching. After Valenzuela, Tommy Lasorda will call on two pitchers with even lower ERAs than the Mexican superchild's mark of 2.48 -- Jerry Reuss (2.29) and Burt Hooton (2.28).

Unbeknownst to many, the Dodgers have an all-new and alsmost unknown bullpen comprised of three rookies and a sophomore. Steve Howe and Dave Stewart are the left-right aces with Tom Niedenfuer (up from AA) and Alejandro Pena (one season out of A ball) behind them.

Until last weekend in Los Angeles, the Astros would have been an almost prohibitive favorite over this Dodger club in transition. However, on Friday night, former Dodger Don Sutton, the Astros' hottest second-half pitcher, had his kneecap broken by a Dodger pitch. Now, the Astros look far more vulnerable.

After Ryan (who had a 1-8 career record against L.A. before his no-hitter) the Astros will start dependable Joe Niekro, traditionally erratic Bob Knepper and a vulnerable fourth starter in Vern Ruhle.

Game one is of enormous importance to the Dodgers. They enter the playoffs as baseball's coldest contender while Houston had the game's best second-half record (.623). Valenzuela, who has lost three tough, low-scoring games in a row, has been the team's symbol of luck all year. If the blessed infant can beat Ryan, who has a reputation for finding a way to lose big games, like the fifth playoff game against the Phillies last season, then the battered Dodgers may prevail. If Valenzuela loses, the Dodgers may fold fast.

Ryan's history has been one of annual frustration. Valenzuela has known only success. The pair probably will meet twice; for L.A. to win, Valenzuela may need to win both. Don't bet he won't.