If either the St. Louis Cardinals or the Atlanta Braves are ahead in the seventh inning of Wednesday's opening game of the National League championship series you can just about cut off the TV, according to Whitey Herzog.

"In this series, it's going to be important who scores early," said the Cardinals' manager. "Whoever goes in behind in the seventh and eighth innings will be in trouble, with these bullpens."

Herzog's man at the finish will be bearded Bruce Sutter of the infamous split-finger fast ball, whose name is being bandied about as league MVP after he led St Louis into the playoffs with 36 saves, a 9-8 record and a 2.90 earned-run average.

Against anybody but the Braves, Sutter would stand as a towering advantage. But Atlanta has two mop-up men whose combined statistics shadow even Sutter's.

Steve Bedrosian went 8-6 in 64 Brave appearances this season. His 95 mile-an-hour fast ball accounted for 123 strikeouts in 137-plus innings; he saved 11 games and his ERA was 2.42.

If Bedrosian couldn't go, Braves Manager Joe Torre called on Gene Garber, another bearded wonder, whose sinker pitch saved 30 games in an 8-10 season with an earned-run average of 2.34.

Both managers say all three of these relievers are capable of appearing in every game of the five-game series, although neither Garber nor Sutter is likely to pitch more than two innings at a time. Thus the effects of shallow pools of starters on both clubs should be minimized.

Today, the Braves and Cardinals took short final workouts on the steaming AstroTurf at Busch Stadium, and if they were nervous about their long-awaited visit to postseason play they didn't show it. "I've worked 18 years for this. I'm going to enjoy it," said Garber in a typical response to questions about pressure.

It's been 14 years since the Cardinals went beyond the regular season and 13 since the Braves did. The only Atlantan still around from the 1969 team that lost the league series to the Mets is Phil Niekro, the 43-year-old knuckleballer who will start the opening game of this series.

The trim, silver-haired Niekro (17-4) arrives on the wings of two straight complete-game shutouts and said today he feels as good as he has all year. He owes his freshness to his late-inning friends. "I only had four complete games, two of them in the last week. With Garber and Bedrosian, you don't have to finish up. And when you get 17 wins out of four complete games you know somebody's picking you up."

Niekro is tough on the Cardinals, standing 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA in 21 innings against St. Louis this season.

By contrast, his opening-day opponent, Joaquin Andujar (15-10), is 0-3 against Atlanta, although he worked to a fine ERA of 2.96. But Andujar is hot. After losing to the Braves, 4-1, on July 19, he went 8-1; in September, he was 5-0.

The two teams haven't seen each other since that July series. The Cardinals went on to breeze to their division title, clinching a week before season's end, but the Braves endured a dogfight with Los Angeles that wasn't decided until the last day of the season.

The Braves also endured a classic midseason foldup, losing 19 of 21 games from late July to mid-August. Torre remembers telling his young club, day by day, "Look, we're still eight ahead in the loss column; then, look, we're still up six, then four, then two." Finally, he told them, "Look, if anybody had said in spring training we'd be even with the Dodgers in August you never would have believed them."

What broke the back of that slide was a little lightheartedness, said Torre. Pitcher Pascual Perez was slated to pitch the 22nd game in the horrible string but got lost coming to the ballpark and arrived 10 minutes after game time. Niekro was pressed into late-minute action, won the game and the Braves went on to win 13 of the next 15.

Perez (4-4, 3.06) became the first pitcher in memory to get lost coming to a home game. He will pitch the second game here. "We got him a hotel room where he can see the park from his window," said Torre with a laugh.

Except for their reliance on the bullpens, these are very different teams. The Cardinals were built practically from scratch by Herzog over the past two years, using trades and free agency. Their hallmarks are speed, led by Lonnie Smith's 68 steals, and defense, anchored by whiz-bang shortstop Ozzie Smith, who is about 80 percent recovered from a bruised thigh and will play.

The Cardinals have no clout, with only 66 home runs. "Gorman Thomas and Ben Oglivie (of the Brewers) have more homers than our whole team," said Coach Red Schoendienst with a chuckle.

The Braves were kept intact by Torre when he took over this spring and they went on to win the first 13 games of the season. They have home run power in center fielder Dale Murphy (36) and third baseman Bob Horner (32). Horner has been out of action since Sept. 19 with a hyperextended left elbow, but took batting practice today and said he will play.

The teams played 12 times this year, Atlanta winning seven and outscoring the Cardinals, 55-53.