CINCINNATI, OCT. 6 -- It is just two days into the National League Championship Series, but already the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates find it difficult to imagine that this turn-back-the-clock playoff encounter will be decided any time before the ninth inning of Game 7. Or perhaps even later than that.

"The way it looks," Pirates center fielder Andy Van Slyke said, "this thing is going to come down to the 22nd inning of the last game at 3 o'clock in the morning, when some outfielder loses a fly ball in the full moon to let the winning run in."

As the teams worked out today -- the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Reds here -- each bemoaned the fact that, with a bit more good fortune, it could hold a 2-0 series lead instead of the 1-1 deadlock that exists heading into Monday's Game 3 at Three Rivers Stadium.

Both clubs, of course, were more reluctant to concede the flip side of the equation -- that they just as easily could be facing an 0-2 deficit. "You don't think about that," Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin said. "It's more comforting to tell yourself, 'We let them off the hook or it would be 2-0.' Then you feel like things are in your control."

That was an elusive feeling during the first two games.

The Reds lost Game 1 behind their ace, Jose Rijo, when they ran themselves out of rallies and left fielder Eric Davis misplayed Van Slyke's seemingly routine fly ball into a game-winning double.

Reds Manager Lou Piniella likes to call Davis "the best left fielder in baseball," and losing pitcher Norm Charlton said of the gaffe: "If Eric doesn't catch that ball, then no one does."

The Pirates lost Game 2 behind their ace, Doug Drabek, when they ran themselves out of rallies and left fielder Barry Bonds played Paul O'Neill's seemingly catchable fly ball into a game-winning double.

Bonds regularly calls himself the best left fielder in baseball, and Drabek said after his hard-luck loss: "It's a credit to Barry's ability that we're standing here saying he probably should have caught that ball. Most guys can't even get close."

How's that for even? The Pirates' part-time first baseman, Sid Bream, was the hero of Game 1 with a two-run home run in a 4-3 victory. O'Neill, who platoons with Glenn Braggs in right field, starred in Game 2 with two hits and two RBI in a 2-1 victory.

The Pirates have five runs and 13 hits in the two games to Cincinnati's five runs and 10 hits. Pittsburgh has two more homers but the Reds have five more stolen bases. The Pirates will have the next three games of the series at home, but Cincinnati won four of six regular-season games at Three Rivers.

The Pirates will start late-season salvation Zane Smith in Game 3, but the Reds have the luxury of two days' rest for their "Nasty Boys" bullpen trio. The most tense moments still lie ahead, but neither club has much experience from which to draw; each is in its first NLCS in 11 years, that after each won six division titles during the 1970s.

This promised to be one of the most evenly matched playoff series in recent history, and that expectation has been borne out thus far. "It's hard to find an advantage for anyone at this point," Pirates Manager Jim Leyland said.

They hope their edge-in-the-making is Smith, the soft-tossing, sinker-balling left-hander who went 6-2 with a 1.30 ERA and two shutouts after being acquired from the Montreal Expos in early August.

Leyland was questioned for starting Bob Walk in Game 1 instead of 22-game-winner Drabek on three days' rest, but the maneuver paid off. And the series' schedule (with three off days) still allows Leyland the chance to start Drabek in Games 4 and 7 if he shuffles the rotation; each of those outings would come on three days' rest.

The Reds will start Danny Jackson Monday -- a calculated risk by Piniella, because Jackson was on the disabled list three times this season (twice because of the shoulder on which he had surgery in 1989). Charlton, converted into a starter at midseason, was passed over and returned to the bullpen for the postseason.

Pittsburgh's primary need is for some production from Bobby Bonilla and Bonds. Each is three for 15 and without an RBI during the first two games -- that despite Bonds's contention that "the hitters are way ahead of the pitchers in the postseason. The hitters are too intense, too zoned in, for the pitchers. I don't know how they're getting me out."

Bonilla allowed that he was "slightly distracted" by his Game 2 switch to third base -- where he committed 35 errors in '89 before being moved to right field last spring -- after Jeff King suffered a bruised lower back being picked off second base. Bonilla will be returned to right field for Game 3, Leyland said, and King is expected to be available.

"The two days off help us in that regard," Leyland said.

The Reds benefit as well, for the gap in play will allow Piniella to get maximum use from his bullpen. Charlton struggled through his 2 2/3 innings Thursday, but Ron Dibble (five strikeouts in 2 1/3 innings over two games) and Randy Myers were overpowering in three innings of shutout relief Friday.

"It's a best-of-five series at this point," O'Neill said. "I like our chances, and I'm sure they like theirs. But I'll bet we like ours more than they like theirs. Does that make any sense? . . . Well, it doesn't matter. Everything in this series is all screwed up anyway."