PITTSBURGH, SEPT. 22 -- For much of this afternoon at shockingly empty Three Rivers Stadium, the Pittsburgh Pirates had the look and feel of a team that had this National League East Division race finally well in hand.

But then their bullpen offered their pursuers at least a temporary reprieve, and what might have been a day for the Pirates to trumpet their recent good fortune instead became one to realize that their dogfight with the New York Mets perhaps will not end until the season does. Pittsburgh lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-2, and saw its lead reduced to 2 1/2 games over the victorious Mets.

"We should've known we couldn't live with all this prosperity," said outfielder Andy Van Slyke, who popped out against St. Louis closer Lee Smith to end the game with two runners aboard. "This thing couldn't possibly be easy. It's been hard for this long. It might as well be hard for the rest of the way too."

The Pirates, who had a three-game winning streak end, led by 2-1 entering the eighth inning on the strength of Cardinals starter Ken Hill's 41-pitch, five-walk first inning and Barry Bonds's home run leading off the sixth.

Pittsburgh starter Randy Tomlin was breezing along, having limited St. Louis to one run on six hits over seven innings. But Manager Jim Leyland lifted the left-hander after he permitted pinch hitter Milt Thompson's one-out double in the eighth and walked rookie Bernard Gilkey.

Stan Belinda emerged from the bullpen, and the firmness of the Pirates' grip on first place began to slip shortly thereafter. One of Belinda's warm-up pitches sailed past catcher Mike LaValliere to the backstop, and it got only worse. "I should've quit right then," Belinda said.

After retiring Ozzie Smith on a groundout that advanced the runners to second and third, Belinda walked Felix Jose. Then he threw a wild pitch that scored Thompson with the tying run. And before Leyland could get him off the mound, he walked Pedro Guerrero and Todd Zeile to force home Gilkey with the winner.

"I just couldn't find the plate," Belinda said. "It was a nightmare out there. You hate to let these guys down and that's what I did. {But} you have to move on, try to come back tomorrow and make up for it. Thankfully, we have a little bit of room to work with."

Yet Leyland did not use this contest to bemoan his lack of a front-line stopper in a bullpen-by-committee that suffered its 15th blown save in 55 opportunities. Instead, he harped on a familiar theme -- the immaturity he says his young club has displayed during the stretch drive -- and an offense that left 10 runners on, including five in the first two innings.

"We let them off the hook all day," Leyland said. "We didn't have good concentration offensively. . . . You can blame it on the bullpen, but we should've scored 10 runs today. We stunk offensively. It's the worst we've been all year.

"You can always get a feel in the dugout if the concentration is there, and we just weren't zeroed in. . . . We were up there with no purpose, no idea what was going on."

Even the crowd -- or lack of one, with today's announced attendance at 22,895 -- drew Leyland's ire. He hinted that perhaps the Pirates' deficiencies in approach stemmed partly from all those empty seats around them.

"The loyalty here has been great," he said, "but I was a little surprised that we had only 22,000 people out here on a Saturday afternoon when we're fighting for a pennant."

Said Van Slyke: "I think we all just have this romantic idea that there should be 50,000 people here every day so we can be sky-high and wrap this thing up early. I guess that's unrealistic on every count."

The Pirates began today's game as if they would continue prospering. Hill (5-4) walked leadoff man Wally Backman, who was thrown out trying to steal second. But Hill walked four of the next five hitters, including a bases-loaded pass to Sid Bream.

Jose's two-out, RBI single off Tomlin (3-4) tied the game at 1 in the sixth, but Bonds's 33rd homer restored the Pirates' advantage to 2-1.

Mets 11, Cubs 5: In Chicago, New York finally showed signs of life, ending a five-game slide.

Darryl Strawberry hit a two-run homer, his 36th, to set a club RBI record with 106, one more than Rusty Staub and Gary Carter.

Daryl Boston had three hits and drove in four runs, two on his 10th homer.

Chicago's Andre Dawson stole his 300th base to join Willie Mays as the only major-leaguers with 300 homers, 300 steals and 2,000 hits. Dawson later hit his 25th home run, his 344th career, to go along with 2,193 hits.

Ron Darling (6-9) won for the first time since Aug. 16, giving up four runs on seven hits in 6 1/3 innings.

Jose Nunez (3-7) gave up eight runs -- the most he's allowed this season -- on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings.

Tied at 2 in the fifth, New York took the lead when Boston and Mackey Sasser singled, Darling sacrificed, Howard Johnson was walked intentionally and Damon Berryhill yielded a run-scoring passed ball.

Dave Magadan's two-run single, Strawberry's homer and Boston's RBI single made it 8-2.