BOSTON, OCT. 3 -- The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds have been constructed from virtually identical blueprints with a common architect. They both ended zero-for-the-1980s frustrations this season and believe, however justifiably, they've established a foothold for years of success. Each sports some of the game's most imposing young talent.
They are a statistical tossup, their ballparks are artificial-turfed clones and the cities that house them less than a hour apart by airplane. Their situations are so similar that the Reds rooted unabashedly for the Pirates to outlast the postseason-hardened New York Mets down the stretch so that the playoff battleground wouldn't be tilted by the experience factor.
Still, the National League Championship Series in which they'll face off beginning Thursday at 8:30 at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium is a story of contrasts. Pittsburgh left fielder Barry Bonds asked: "They're not like us at all; they're our opposites"?
The answer, it seems, can be found where a team's approach usually originates -- in the manager's office. There, Lou Piniella drives the Reds with a high-energy, high-intensity, high-blood-pressure assault that has the 47-year-old talking wistfully of a retirement in the not-too-distant future.
Piniella never relaxed in 1990 despite Cincinnati's wire-to-wire lead in the NL West. As a result, the task before him now is to calm the frayed nerves around him and try to refuel the Reds' emotional tank that apparently was close to empty for the final few months of the wearying season.
"We do need to recharge ourselves somewhat," Reds shortstop Barry Larkin said. "Maybe we pushed too hard for too long. . . . But if you can't get psyched up again for the playoffs, then there's something wrong with you."
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Manager Jim Leyland was a soothing force amid the chaos that was the Pirates' pennant drive. "I thought I had seen it all in baseball," said Leyland, who spent 19 years in the minors as a player and manager before his big league debut as a coach. "Until this year."
While General Manager Larry Doughty was putting his job in jeopardy with a series of administrative blunders and Pittsburgh's players were struggling with their confidence as the Mets made one charge after another, Leyland forswore coffee, cigarettes and his once-common clubhouse tantrums to create the low-key atmosphere in which the Pirates thrived.
He left his players to settle their internal disputes, and the result was a close-knit locker room -- except for the moody Bonds, whose seclusion didn't prevent him from a 33-homer, 114-RBI, 52-steal bid for the NL most valuable player award.
The Pirates relaxed despite their first experience as a group in a September division dogfight, and their resolve grew with each New York push they repelled. They surprised even themselves by wrapping up the NL East title before this week's season-ending series vs. the Mets.
"We really expected to be playing for everything these three days," slugger Bobby Bonilla said. "It's a relief to get that over with early and start focusing on the next thing. . . . Our advantage against Cincinnati might be that we had to push almost until the end of the season, whereas they could let up a lot. It's tough to get the edge back if you're cruising for too long."
The numbers, however, leave little to choose from in assessing the matchup. The abilities (if not the personalities) of the teams are remarkably similar, perhaps because both were largely assembled by Doughty -- the Reds' scouting director before going to Pittsburgh as general manager.
Cincinnati finished with 91 victories, the Pirates with 95. Both pitching staffs are solid, and -- while Pittsburgh relies heavily on Bonds and Bonilla (32 home runs, 120 RBI) and the Reds spread the offensive wealth -- the clubs' hitting results are practically mirror images too.
Cincinnati's NL-best .265 average was six points higher than Pittsburgh's. But the Pirates scored more runs and hit more homers. The Reds led the league in ERA at 3.39 with Pittsburgh right there at 3.40 -- remarkable considering the Pirates had 19 pitchers win games.
The teams split their 12-game series, with the Pirates crafting their first four-game sweep at Riverfront in August but the Reds rebounding to win three of four at Three Rivers Stadium the next weekend.
Since these team's last playoff meeting -- Pittsburgh's three-game sweep of Cincinnati in the 1979 NLCS before winning the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles -- is long since forgotten, the pyschological side of the matchup seems a washout too.
Neither franchise had been to the postseason since. Pittsburgh has had to rebuild slowly under Leyland from three consecutive last-place finishes in the mid-'80s, while the Reds finally ditched the excrutiating burden of four straight second-place showings before 1989's collapse beneath the Pete Rose disruptions.
"No one comes in with an advantage," said Reds Game 1 starter Jose Rijo. "It's like we almost could switch uniforms and no one would know. . . . Except for Lou and Leyland. Then everyone would know."
Bonds batted just .190 against the Reds this season, but Bonilla hit .390 with six homers (three of them during the sweep) and 13 RBI. Cincinnati outfielder Eric Davis hit .393 vs. the Pirates, but his his injury-plagued season will continue into the playoffs with a bruised left shoulder he suffered running into a wall while trying to make a catch last week.
"It's still a little stiff," he said. "I'm not concerned about the pain. I've been playing in pain all year. That's the least of my concerns."
Leyland's hunch that his right-handed pitchers will offset the Reds' right-handed punch -- Davis, Larkin and Chris Sabo, most prominently -- led to his surprise selection of righty Bob Walk as Thursday's starter.
Twenty-two-game winner Doug Drabek pitched Sunday and isn't available until Friday's Game 2, and the Pirates' late-season salvation -- left-hander Zane Smith -- will start the third game Monday in Pittsburgh.
So the erratic Walk, who has struggled to a 7-5 record and been in and out of the starting rotation all season, got the call. Leyland hopes Walk will continue a recent upsurge that has seen him go 2-0 and surrender only 14 hits and three runs over his past three starts.
The Reds will follow Rijo (14-8) with lefty Tom Browning in Game 2. Their pitching question mark is Jack Armstrong, who has battled a sore elbow and was 1-6 since being the NL's All-Star Game starter. He worked two perfect innings Tuesday in his first start since Aug. 24.
"We're kind of beat up," Larkin said, "but we're ready to battle."