CINCINNATI, AUG. 10 -- Some folks, flocks of them, here in Redland thought the vultures had begun circling Pete Rose Way, the entry to Riverfront Stadium. A lot of those same folks, or at least the 48,685 in attendance, came away tonight reassured that their recently maligned but still beloved Cincinnati Reds were still the high fliers.

With Nasty Boy reliever turned starter Norm Charlton throwing his first complete game, a three-hitter, and Paul O'Neill hitting home runs in his first two at-bats, Cincinnati chased the San Francisco Giants off its tail, 7-0.

O'Neill picked on Don Robinson to help boost the Reds, whose National League West lead over the defending champions had shriveled from 11 games to 4 1/2. That lead could have dropped to just a half-game had the Giants repeated a four-game sweep here to match the one they laid on the Reds in Candlestick Park July 26-29.

Now the margin is 5 1/2, and Cincinnati Manager Lou Piniella is saying: "The guys are ready. I feel good about what's going to happen in this series."

Piniella had raves for Charlton: "What a job he did. You can't do any better. . . . Outstanding fastball, great forkball, changed speeds, threw strikes. Just a great effort.

"And O'Neill's taken very well to that second spot in the lineup."

O'Neill -- who drove in all eight runs the Reds had scored this season against Robinson -- didn't have to wait long to get at his favorite pitcher. He made it 10 of 10 with a first-inning shot following Barry Larkin's scratch leadoff hit, then hit his fifth homer -- of a season total 14 -- off the veteran right-hander to make it a 4-0 game in the third.

Cleanup hitter Eric Davis came around too, with a homer, double and single, and Hal Morris (.377) furnished two doubles and a single.

And with Charlton (8-3), already sub-2.00 in ERA since coming from the bullpen to the rotation six starts ago, attaining a peak, Giants Manager Roger Craig was headed for one of those nights.

Craig had joshed when his injury-wracked Giants fell 14 1/2 games behind in May: "I went home nights and slept like a baby. Woke up in the middle of the night crying."

The day began with Cincinnati newspaper headlines bespeaking the Reds' blues in the wake of Thursday night's 10-3 loss to Los Angeles: "Under pressure, 1st-place Reds playing scared" . . . "Reds' long meeting brings no quick fix" . . . "Armstrong perplexed with showing".

Jack Armstrong was chased in two-thirds of an inning Thursday, the Reds in a 5-0 hole. Since starting the All-Star Game, he has dropped from 11-3 to 11-8, his ERA going from 2.28 to 3.43.

"I'm not doing anything different," he told the Enquirer. "I probably had the best stuff I've had all year."

That was just after Piniella ventured that the nearly hour-long clubhouse meeting he called would do the club "a lot of good."

He was hoping a tete-a-tete just ahead of the team meeting -- a 20-minute session with slump-bound Davis reviewing mechanics with batting coach Tony Perez in Piniella's office -- might do some good too. Meantime the talk-show guys on WLW radio mercilessly hazed the .225-hitting multimillionaire.

The Reds reached Robinson for two runs before he retired anyone. Larkin beat out a seemingly routine grounder to shortstop Jose Uribe and O'Neill rode a 2-1 pitch over the wall for his 13th homer. Where the vultures had been circling, fireworks flew.

With two out in the home second, Billy Hatcher lined a 3-1 pitch over short, moved up as Robinson's third strike to Charlton got away from Gary Carter for a passed ball, and came in on Larkin's line single to left. Charlton was caught rounding second on the play, but not until Hatcher had scored.

And in the third O'Neill sent the ball, and its set of fireworks, soaring yet loftier. Leading off, the left-handed swinger pulled a 2-2 delivery into the second deck, a shot estimated at 412 feet.

An out later Davis followed with a line double to left-center and held at third after Morris dropped a single in front of Brett Butler in center. But Craig was out of the dugout and Robinson was done.

Francisco Oliveras kept it at 4-0 by starting a double play on Mariano Duncan's rap.

Kelly Downs, one of the Giants' disabled baker's dozen this season, made his first appearance since preseason shoulder surgery after Oliveras worked a perfect fourth and fifth. Davis, first up in the sixth, greeted him warmly. On a 3-2 count, he cranked his 15th homer into the second deck in left.

Through seven, Charlton allowed three base runners, all on singles. One batter -- Matt Williams on a steal -- had reached second.

"Hopefully, the guys in the middle of the order {Williams, Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell} will start hitting," Craig said before the game. "It's only a matter of time."

With the return of Downs and Mike LaCoss this week, Craig figured "the pitching will be all right from here on in." Downs retired his last six batters, before Davis scratched his third hit, off Steve Bedrosian, in the eighth and scooted home by a hair on Morris's third hit, a double to right. Duncan scored Morris with a grounder to short.

Charlton shook off a two-out error by third baseman Chris Sabo in the ninth for the complete game.