PITTSBURGH -- Glenn Braggs saved the National League pennant for the Cincinnati Reds Friday night with what might have been the most wonderfully awful defensive gem in the history of October outfield play.

A bad right fielder would never have reached the ball that Pittsburgh's Carmelo Martinez hit off Randy Myers with one out and a man on base in the ninth inning with the Reds clinging to a 2-1 lead. Martinez's high liner would have skimmed over the eight-foot wall in Riverfront Stadium by about two inches to put the Pirates ahead, 3-2, in this sixth game of the NL playoffs.

A great outfielder, however, would have sped directly to the wall, gotten his bearings for a split second, then taken a safe little jump and caught the ball fairly easily at cap-top level.

Braggs, a good outfielder but not a great or polished one, did neither. Instead, he turned his nonchalant catch into an indelible part of baseball history. And a fine subject for debate.

"He went back in the fashion that he had the ball. . . . He just loped back after it. So I figured he had it," said Myers, still a bit stunned to learn that all replays showed the ball would have left the park. "Well, he caught it. He's 6 feet 4. That helped us a little."

Gee, Randy, no "great catch, Glenn."

Actually, Braggs almost gave the whole town of Cincinnati a heart attack. Years from now, replays of his catch may cause a few coronaries. Especially among managers and coaches who imagine their own players negotiating comparably important plays in a similar fashion.

Braggs backpedaled, or ran sidesaddle, rather than turning to track the ball. He seemed to assume that the ball and the wall were never destined to interact. The former Milwaukee Brewer also never found the wall with his free hand, although he had time. Actually, Braggs not only jumped before he got to the wall, but also jumped toward it -- the perfect way to have a ball bounce out of your glove when your back hits the wall.

At the last split second, Braggs took a graceful little leap -- albeit off the wrong foot -- extended himself fully, but without straining, and snagged the ball in the webbing of his glove as casually as if this were a 10-1 game in May.

Only then, as his glove snapped over the top of the wall, and his back hit the fence, did the 56,079 fans in this park truly grasp how close the Reds had tiptoed beside the cliff's edge. On a night when the Pirates had only one hit -- an RBI double off the same wall by the same Martinez -- they almost forced what would've been a spooky final game.

The ball did not pop out of Braggs's glove and over the wall for a home run. But it could have. Ask any outfielder.

In a heartbeat, Braggs was spared a lifetime of second guesses and granted decades of grateful handshakes. He made the play of his life at the biggest moment of his career. Nobody asks how.

"I had a pretty good idea the whole way I could get it," said Braggs, who only had one single in five at-bats in this series but may be remembered longer than any other player. "I never panicked. It turned out to be a tougher play than I thought."

Perhaps the minor deities of the sport looked out for Braggs and his comrades Friday evening. And, perhaps, all things considered, they should have.

Both Manager Lou Piniella and his Reds have shared the common bond of terrible memories throughout this season. In fact, the Reds whole wire-to-wire triumph was a conscious attempt by all concerned to exorcise their bitter experiences involving the game's two most notorious exiles: George Steinbrenner and Pete Rose.

Piniella, the former Yankees manager, doubted himself because Steinbrenner second-guessed, belittled and intimidated him so badly that he did not know if he was capable of being a major league manager. Like many others before him, Piniella left Steinbrenner's embrace a shaken and lesser man.

All year, Piniella wanted to prove that, without Steinbrenner's neurotic interference, he could manage.

"I'm very proud of this team and how it went about this quest," Piniella said, after Luis Quinones' seventh-inning single had broken a 1-1 tie. "I told {owner} Marge Schott before the season that I didn't come here to 'manage.' I came here to win. So, at least, I repaid my debt to her."

The Reds doubted themselves because Rose, in the grip of his gambling addiction, managed them in an erratic uncommunicative manner for five seasons. Four times he helped misguide them to second place in seasons when their talent seemed to scream "World Series."

The Reds, especially vets like Eric Davis, Tom Browning, Barry Larkin, Paul O'Neill, Chris Sabo and Danny Jackson, who pitched six innings of one-hit ball Friday, wanted to prove that, without the distractions attendant on Rose's disintegrating lifestyle, they would not choke.

Now, Steibrenner has been banned from baseball. Rose is in jail. And Piniella and his Reds will meet the champion Oakland A's in the World Series.

The Pirates will be left with nagging memories of their own. Of Martinez's drive, Pirates Manager Jim Leyland said, "I thought it would be a home run."

However, the Pirates may think even more about their failure to win Game 2 here. "That game was the turning point," said Leyland. "We had a shot at {starter} Tom Browning that day. He wasn't at his best, especially in the first inning. We should have scored some runs and we didn't. But Browning is a bulldog. We never got him."

It was fitting that this playoff's final and dominant memory was of a defensive play because defense, even more than pitching and hitting, decided almost every game. A bad misplay by Eric Davis cost the Reds Game 1 just as Davis's fabulous throw was a key to their victory in Game 4. Barry Bonds's similar (though not nearly as ugly) failure to catch a fly probably cost the Pirates Game 2. Pittsburgh's dazzling double play to end Game 5 was a play worthy of any grand stage.

Again this evening, defense was everything. The Reds scored their first run because both Jay Bell and Jose Lind could not get balls out of their gloves on simple plays.

In the eighth inning, Piniella sent Quinones to pinch-hit for right fielder Paul O'Neill. Quinones got the pennant-winning hit. Piniella then sent Braggs into right.

Would O'Neill, who made two great throws in this series, but who also looked slow and disoriented in chasing balls hit over his head in this series, have gotten to the final blast from Martinez's bat?

Many will say that Braggs made a fairly basic play look very dramatic. It's equally probable that, had O'Neill, not Braggs, been in right field in the ninth inning tonight, the Reds and Pirates would probably be preparing for Game 7 at this very moment.