CINCINNATI -- At 5 on a summer afternoon at Riverfront Stadium, there is nowhere to turn without facing the heat. It's 90 degrees, over 100 by the time the sun has kicked around on the AstroTurf all day. The humidity hovers at 70 percent, normal in this structure on the banks of the Ohio River, surrounded by hills that bend breezes away from the city.

Yet, Reds outfielder Dave Parker had donned full pregame attire. A thick, black rubber belly-band was wrapped around his stomach. Over that device, designed to keep inches off his waistline, he wore a red rubber jacket that fit so tightly it seemed ready to burst with each movement of his shoulders. From time to time, he pulled the jacket's elastic waistband from his body and pools of sweat fell to the green carpet.

Batting practice, a diligent matter for the Reds, who have reached the top of the National League West Division on offense, was in full swing. Parker, called "Pops" by the younger members of the team, was about to take his turn in the cage when someone observed that one or another of his teammates was having a great year. "Yeah," Parker said, "but it ain't over yet. That's the only thing I got to look forward to . . . It ain't over yet."

On the surface, these were the words of a man in a personal slump on a team running to catch up. But that's hardly the case. At the time, the Reds were 2 1/2 games ahead of second-place Houston. Parker had 18 home runs and 55 RBI and there were four more games to play before the all-star break, a total of 85 games remaining in the season.

Like virtually everyone on the team, he was having a good offensive year. But, he shares something else with his teammates: He is not inclined to take premature pleasure in his performance or the team's. Things are just too tight, too close and there's a long way to go before fall.

For the first time since 1976, the Reds made it to the all-star break first in their division. But they are not a joyous lot. "We're in first place because we got the horses, because we got the talent," said outfielder Tracy Jones, who is batting .300 and has a .349 on base percentage (through Friday's games). "But we should be doing better than we have. We haven't put it all together yet. We haven't played consistently well for a long period of time."

At no time this season have the Reds won more than four straight games. They had a stretch from May 6 through May 24 when they lost 12 of 17 games, and another June 7 to June 20, when they lost nine of 14. Nevertheless, they took sole possesion of first place in the NL West May 29, and have held it.

Manager Pete Rose shies from midseason evaluations. "We're in first place," he said. "That's all the evaluation that's needed." But he admits luck has helped significantly. "If Houston had done what they did last year, we might be 10 games out," he said.

Last season, the Reds were 4-14 against the Astros, 4-8 at the all-star break. This season, they are 9-3 against Houston.

"I think it's called survival," said Eric Davis, 25, the sensation of the NL. "We're determined to win. Sometimes we don't get the good pitching, sometimes we don't get the good hitting, but we find a way to win."

More often than not, the path to victory has been cleared by the hitters. After 81 games, the Reds were first in the NL in runs scored, 416, an average of 5.1 per game; first in home runs (105); second to the Mets in total bases with 1,220, 10 behind the leaders, and third in stolen bases with 94, behind St. Louis (119) and San Diego (100).

Leading the way, of course, was Davis with 24 home runs. Now he's up to 29, a .324 batting average and 37 stolen bases. His supporting cast goes well beyond Parker and Jones, known as "Psycho" in the clubhouse because of his spirited play. Kal Daniels, before going on the disabled list for arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, was hitting .316 with 17 home runs and 16 stolen bases. Through Friday's games, third baseman Buddy Bell was at .287 with 39 RBI and catcher Bo Diaz is in the midst of what Rose called "a great year," batting .298 with 62 RBI. "We've got a lot of people who can pick the other guy up," Bell said. "If Dave Parker doesn't drive in a run, it's not the end of the world. If he doesn't do it, Bo will, or someone else will. Maybe I'll get a shot at it."

But runs scored hasn't been the problem, runs allowed has been. Although the offense had scored 416 runs after 81 games, Reds pitching had given up 373 -- sixth most in the league. True, the Reds led the league with 105 home runs but their pitching had given up 92. Only last-place San Diego had given up more (93).

In particular, it has been starting pitching that has troubled the Reds. Nine pitchers have started games for the Reds. In 34 games, the starter has not reached the sixth inning. In 40 games, the starter has given up the lead. In 42 of their first 81 games, the Reds used four or more pitchers.

"That's probably the reason we haven't had that good, long stretch that could put some distance between us and everybody else," Jones said. "When you get the good pitching, you don't get that blowout game."

The Reds' starting rotation consists of Tom Browning, 5-8 with a 6.77 earned run average (through Friday's games); Bill Gullickson, 10-7, 4.50; converted reliever Ron Robinson, 4-3, 3.92; Guy Hoffman, 7-6, 4.25, and Ted Power, 8-5, 4.32.

Meanwhile, Mario Soto, who underwent arthroscopic surgery last August and made six starts earlier in the year, was back home in the Dominican Republic, forced to give his right shoulder further rest. It was hoped he might be ready to pitch within a month. Rose insists he finally "has {the} rotation straightened out," but it has the ring of wishful thinking.

It's no secret in NL circles that the Reds have made their way to first place with a productive offense and a bullpen, paced by left-hander John Franco, who has a 7-3 record, 18 saves and a 1.75 ERA. And it is also no secret that without improvements in their starting pitching, they will constantly feel the pursuit of second-place San Francisco, just two games back, and Houston.

"That's how we've done it, hitting and the bullpen," said Bell. "But you can't do that all year. It doesn't work that way."