PITTSBURGH, SEPT. 26 -- The Pittsburgh Pirates' front office has not been baseball's smoothest operation this year, having orchestrated a stumble-and-bumble routine on a par with a Chevy Chase skit. But if General Manager Larry Doughty is let go after the season, he will leave having made the trade that could secure the National League East title for the Pirates.

That deal brought pitcher Zane Smith here last month, and Pittsburgh's reward is the three-game lead it maintained tonight over the New York Mets. Smith survived some shoddy defense behind him to beat the Chicago Cubs, 4-3, before 26,157 at Three Rivers Stadium. This was his sixth victory in seven decisions with the Pirates and lowered Pittsburgh's magic number to five.

He allowed seven hits and three unearned runs -- one in the fourth inning on second baseman Jose Lind's throwing error and two on a pair of infield misplays in the ninth.

It ended with the tying run at third base when Damon Berryhill pounded a Smith sinker into the ground for a double-play roller to shortstop Jay Bell. One batter earlier, Bell had botched Shawon Dunston's bouncer for the Pirates' third error of the game, letting Chicago pull within one run.

"I had a good sinker tonight, and all I was trying to do the whole inning was get ground balls," said Smith, who improved to 12-8 on the season. "I got one, and Jay couldn't make the play. Those things happen, and you just have to pick each other up. Fortunately, I got another one and we turned it."

For the second straight night, the Pirates (90-65) gained a day but not a game on the Mets. New York closes the season here with a three-game series beginning Monday, but Pittsburgh needs only to add one game to its lead by Sunday to clinch its first division title since 1979.

The Pirates, winners of three straight and six of their last seven, face the Cubs here Thursday before traveling to St. Louis Friday. Four of their final seven games are at home, where they're 47-30.

The Pirates were stymied for four innings tonight by Kevin Coffman, but crafted a four-run fifth keyed by Andy Van Slyke's two-run triple and coasted until the furious final flurry.

"We didn't get much," said Van Slyke, hitting .395 with 13 RBI in the last 12 games he's started. "But this guy hasn't needed much."

Smith has yielded nine earned runs in 70 innings as a starter with the Pirates -- a 1.16 ERA -- and has won each of his five starts at home. He has walked just seven in nine Pirates starts and no earned runs in his last 27 innings here.

Shortly after the Aug. 8 swap with the Montreal Expos -- they were eliminated from the race tonight -- the beleaguered Doughty conceded that he gave up too much for the 29-year-old left-hander -- pitcher Scott Ruskin and two highly regarded minor league prospects. But "he's made me reconsider that statement," Doughty said tonight.

Smith is credited in the Pittsburgh clubhouse with being the difference in the NL East race. Two of his victories came by 1-0 scores -- once against the Mets here three weeks ago, and one versus the Cardinals in his last start Friday. He was acquired partly because he's a career-long Mets killer, but his proficiency here has been across the board.

"He's been the guy who has put us over the top, no doubt," outfielder Barry Bonds said. "He's been the key ingredient. Without him, we're probably in second place right now."

Said Manager Jim Leyland: "Obviously he's been a great lift for us. He could be 8-0 or so, the way he's pitched. When we can go with Doug {Drabek, Tuesday's starter} and him back to back, that's a pretty good combination."

Yet each stellar outing by Smith also has its downside. He's eligible for free agency after the season, and he already may have pushed his price tag beyond the reach of the financially limited Pirates. Smith says he thinks occasionally about the $3 million-plus per year Mark Langston got in signing with the California Angels last winter, and he seems to expect a similar deal.

"I just wish he'd buy a house in the area soon," Leyland said.

Said Smith: "I just want something that's fair for the market. I felt like I was on the verge of becoming one of the best left-handers in the league in 1987 {when he was 15-10 with the Atlanta Braves, a year before undergoing elbow surgery}. Then the injury slowed me down. Now I feel like I'm getting back to that point."

Only Pittsburgh's sloppiness afield kept him from his third shutout in 21 days. After the Pirates wasted a couple of early scoring opportunities -- Bobby Bonilla and Bonds leaving two runners aboard twice in the first three innings -- Chicago grabbed a 1-0 lead with its first tainted run.

Mark Grace slapped a one-out single to left and went to second on Andre Dawson's bouncer that Bell couldn't handle for what charitably was scored an infield hit. Luis Salazar followed with what should have been a double-play grounder to Bell, but Lind's relay throw sailed far over leaping first baseman Sid Bream and into the stands as Grace scored.

But the Pirates rebounded to finish Coffman (0-1) and give Smith all the support he needed in the fifth.

Coffman -- making his first major league start in two years -- walked Wally Backman and Bell with one out, then fell behind Van Slyke and had to groove a 2-1 fastball. The Pittsburgh center fielder yanked the delivery into the right field corner and raced to third while Dawson retrieved the ball.

Bonilla followed with an RBI single to center for a 3-1 lead. Bonds walked to prompt Cubs Manager Don Zimmer to go to his bullpen, but Mike LaValliere reached Jose Nunez for a two-out, run-scoring single.

Cone Finishes Expos

Associated Press

MONTREAL, Sept. 26 -- David Cone rationed two hits in eight innings and tied for the major league strikeout lead as the New York Mets kept their pennant hopes alive with a 4-0 victory over Montreal that eliminated the Expos from NL East contention.

Cone (13-10) struck out seven to reach 221 for the season. That is one more than the Dodgers' Ramon Martinez and matches Texas's Nolan Ryan. The hits, by Larry Walker and Jerry Goff, were both broken-bat, opposite-field singles.