PITTSBURGH -- When you get the kill shot, take it. Especially in the baseball postseason, where wounded beasts, once spared, tend to turn on their tormentors.

The Cincinnati Reds had their gun cocked and pointed at the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 5 of the playoffs tonight. But, with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth inning, trailing by just 3-2 -- when a hit would have won the National League pennant -- the Reds fired a blank.

And a stunning, game-ending double-play blank at that.

When the Bucs' Bobby Bonilla, Jose Lind and Sid Bream turned a classic pick-it, turn-it, dig-it 'round-the-horn double play on Jeff Reed's nasty bouncer toward the hole, the crowd of 48,221 let out an enormous roar -- not only of joy and relief at a season saved, but also of anticipation at what might still be won. When a club makes a play that great, that tough, that dicey at every juncture, at a moment so vital, then it may become a dangerous team indeed.

If the Reds' Eric Davis put the Pirates on the ropes here Tuesday with The Throw, then the Pirates fought their way back into the ring with The DP.

Bonilla is usually a butcher at third. All season he's been removed to the outfield to spare both his health and his pitcher's feelings. But injuries have forced him back to the Too Hot Corner. This time, Bonilla not only snagged the hopper, but did the right thing with it. Pirates infielders had been told to throw home on any ball that wasn't a patented double play. And this one sure wasn't. Bonilla's instincts took over. He threw to second. "And I'm glad he did," said Manager Jim Leyland.

Next, limber Lind, who can leapfrog over a 6-foot tall teammate, made a pivot worthy of Bill Mazeroski. Chris Sabo's attempt at felony manslaughter failed when Lind evaporated as he flipped his low peg to first base.

For a moose, Bream is real slick at first. He dug this one out of the dirt cleanly and in the nick of time.

In Las Vegas, they'll still give you pretty long odds against the Pirates going to the World Series. They not only trail the Reds three games to two but are heading for Redsland. However, when destiny switches dugouts, the venue seldom matters. The '79 Pirates finished out their comeback from a 3-1 deficit in Baltimore. And the '85 Royals made Toronto a very quiet place in their comparable playoff comeback.

But will it happen again?

Certainly the Reds' best pitcher Jose Rijo is doing his part. Before this series, he claimed he felt "unbeatable," then immediately failed to hold a lead in Game 1, which the Reds lost. After Game 4, which he won, Rijo was back at it, tempting fate, saying that this playoff was "all but over" and that the end would come Wednesday night.

"I've heard that Rijo's talking to people about how he'll pitch to {Jose} Canseco in the World Series," said Andy Van Slyke acerbically after this game. "Well he might just have to face us one more time."

That would be in Game 7. If there is one. Neither Rijo's talent nor his accomplishments, though considerable, are of the size which normally allows such a level of bravado. In the dugout, they say, "Don't let your mouth cash any checks that your butt can't pay."

Rijo should root very hard for Danny Jackson to beat the Pirates Zane Smith on Friday night because Rijo's lips may already have overdrawn his derriere.

The Pirates cleared several symbolic hurdles in this victory. First, they proved they could run on the Reds' outfielders without being gunned down every time. "I was starting to think they were robots," said Van Slyke.

Gritty Doug Drabek, who should win the Cy Young Award and who did win this game with 8 1/3 innings of heart-and-soul work, showed the Pirates how to gamble and win. He not only beat out an infield hit to Gold Glove shortstop Barry Larkin, but went first to third in a cloud of dust on Paul O'Neill, the Reds' outfield assists leader.

For once, the Pirates got a first-inning lead (2-1) and proved that, once you're ahead, the Nasty Boys don't tend to get out of their cage as early or often and, so, cause far less pain.

In another Pittsburgh omen, the Reds' defense showed its mortality in the Pirates' two-run first. O'Neill might have cut Van Slyke's triple to a double with a superior play. Then, first baseman Hal Morris might have started an inning-ending double play on Barry Bonds's sharp grounder. Instead, Morris bungled his way into a mere force as a run scored.

Finally, Leyland clearly trumped the Reds' Lou Piniella in the ninth. Rather than having Drabek, or any of his right-handed relievers, face Sabo, Leyland called for lefty Bob Patterson and had him issue an intentional walk to load the bases and bring up Reed.

That exposed Piniella. When Reed entered the game to catch, the Reds also made a pitching change. So Piniella could have flip-flopped Reed and the pitcher in the No. 7 and No. 9 spots in the batting order.

When Patterson entered, Piniella had tied his own hands.

Ugly, Lou, very ugly. Worse yet, Piniella appeared not to have grasped his mistake even after the game. "Where do you want me to flip-flop him?" he asked, when questioned.

When the light dawned on Piniella, he said, "Reed has hit left-handers better all year."

Nice alibi. But still the wrong move. And, just as important, far more eerie for your team when Reed hits into a DP.

For Pirates fanciers, all this is very nice. But one huge problem remains. The same one, frankly, that got them in this predicament.

Bonds and Bonilla are taking the pipe, big time.

These guys, with 110 and 120 RBI, are the core of the Pirates -- they're Ruth and Gehrig, Mantle and Maris, Aaron and Matthews. They're the Killer B's.

They're also seven for 35 with two RBI and one measly double. Bonds has helped lose a game by misplaying a fly in left and Bonilla was the victim of Davis's throw. That's bad karma.

Bonilla looks like he's just barely misfiring and may explode. But Bonds could not look worse. Think of Dave Winfield's one for 21 or Canseco's one for 19 in the World Series. Think of Tony Perez and Gil Hodges. Once you start to gurgle, it's wait 'til next year.

"Bonds is struggling and I can't hide the fact," said Leyland. "I don't know what his problem is. It looks like he can't pull the trigger." And that's what he said before Bonds's latest 0-fer.

"Everyone thinks I'm feeling the pressure," says Bonds. "It's not that. But I know this is what will be remembered: 'He had a great year, but what did he do for us in the playoffs?' I know that's what's going to happen."

Sometimes the real world is the cruelest world we can imagine. Barry Bonds is smart, gifted, high-strung and the proud bearer of a distinguished baseball name. And he's also as fully enmeshed in a national nightmare as a player can be. The Thing has got him.

And unless he finds a way to shake his personal batting monster, the Pirates probably won't finish what they started on this sparkling night.