CINCINNATI, OCT. 4 -- On a night for supporting casts and minutiae at Riverfront Stadium, it was not surprising that Game 1 of the National League Championship Series turned on the fortunes of the two bullpens. One was unyielding, the other flinched just enough to cause a trying defeat.

The shocker was that the failing relief corps belonged to the Cincinnati Reds. Norm Charlton was far more generous than nasty, and the Pittsburgh Pirates completed a four-run resurgence with a seventh-inning tally -- albeit tainted -- against him for a 4-3 victory before 52,911.

The winning run came on Andy Van Slyke's two-out fly ball that eluded misstepping Cincinnati left fielder Eric Davis for a ground-rule double. But the night's most telling contrast pitted the misfortunes of Charlton -- who missed the strike zone on 18 of his 33 pitches over 2 2/3 laborious innings -- against the effectiveness of the Pirates' bullpen trio of Stan Belinda, Bob Patterson and Ted Power.

"All we've heard all year is that we're the one thing holding this team back," said Power, a former Red who struck out Chris Sabo to end the game with the tying run on third base. "Well, we didn't hold anyone back tonight."

The Reds shouldn't have let matters get to that point. They pounced on unlikely first-game starter Bob Walk for three runs after five batters for a 3-0 lead.

And Cincinnati was pitching Jose Rijo, who Manager Lou Piniella called the NL's "most overpowering pitcher over the past six weeks." So he was. But the Pirates scratched their way back with a run in the third on Jose Lind's RBI triple, then tied it on Sid Bream's two-run homer in the fourth.

Walk settled down to register a credible six-inning, four-hit performance, and Rijo was gone after amassing eight strikeouts by the sixth. That's when matters promised to turn in the Reds' favor.

"At that juncture, you have to figure we have the advantage," shortstop Barry Larkin said.

But Cincinnati's vaunted bullpen, with its "Nasty Boys" trio and its 50 saves and 2.93 ERA, failed to deliver. It was the Pirates' less heralded collection that came through.

Charlton escaped a bases-loaded predicament in the sixth, but walked Jay Bell with one out in the seventh and served up Van Slyke's drive to deep left. Davis backpedaled instead of turning his back to the plate to chase it. Then, he jumped, but watched the ball land behind him and bounce over the fence.

"I just kind of got my feet crossed up," Davis said. "I lost the ball {in the lights} for a little bit, but it was a matter of bad footwork and indecisiveness more than anything."

Said Piniella: "That's a play Eric is going to make 99 times out of 100."

Meanwhile, Belinda worked two perfect innings and struck out three following Walk, and Patterson and Power survived the Reds' ninth -- with a little help.

Pinch hitter Todd Benzinger started the Reds' last gasp with a single to center field off Patterson, after going without a pinch-hit during the regular season. Patterson walked Davis to put men at second and first. Piniella sent Ron Oester to pinch hit for Paul O'Neill with instructions to bunt.

But Patterson fielded Oester's attempt and threw to third baseman Jeff King to force out Benzinger. Pirates Manager Jim Leyland brought on Power, who benefited immediately when catcher Mike LaValliere threw out pinch runner Billy Bates at second on a double steal attempt.

Piniella said that Bates had been instructed not to run if he couldn't get a good jump from first. "We made some fundamental errors there in the ninth," Piniella said. "We didn't execute the bunt and we made a baserunning mistake. We took ourselves out of that inning."

Power got Sabo on a half-swing at a pitch in the dirt, leaving the Reds with the task of making up their 0-1 deficit Friday afternoon against Pittsburgh's 22-game winner and Cy Young Award favorite, Doug Drabek.

These teams split 12 regular season meetings, with each winning four of six games on the other's home field. Each franchise was ending an 11-year absence from the postseason, and this victory may carry a significant amount of weight with the Pirates.

"The way we won this game could have a real carryover effect on our confidence," Van Slyke said. "No one really knew what to expect in this atmosphere, and to hang in there after the way we started things off is a big boost."

Walk lived up to his name by issuing Larkin a base on balls to start the Cincinnati first. Billy Hatcher bunted Larkin to second, and Hal Morris brought him home with a single to left field after Walk fell behind in the count and grooved a 3-1 fastball.

Davis then sliced a liner into the right field corner for an run-scoring double and ended up at third base when Bobby Bonilla fumbled the ball. O'Neill continued the onslaught by ripping a double into the right-center alley to make it 3-0, and there was talk about Leyland not starting Drabek on three days' rest.

Rijo -- who had pitched to a 1.27 ERA over his last nine starts and finished the season with three straight complete-game victories -- breezed through the first two innings, then ran into some trouble after walking LaValliere to start the third. Lind followed by poking a liner down the right field line that became a triple when O'Neill fell as he rushed to retrieve the ball.

But Rijo toughened to keep the Reds' lead at 3-1, striking out Walk and Wally Backman before inducing Bell to pop out to end the inning.

He wasn't as fortunate in the fourth. Barry Bonds walked with two outs, and Bream yanked a fastball well beyond the right field wall. It was an omen, because the Pirates came into the game 14-0 in games featuring a Bream home run.