The Cincinnati Reds have crates of champagne packed in ice and a clubhouse draped in sheets of plastic, all in preparation for a celebration that still seemed probable, even after tonight's 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Milwaukee Brewers in front of 20,574 at County Stadium.

The Reds lost because a three-run lead slipped away in the late innings, losing finally on Ron Belliard's single with two outs in the bottom of the 11th. Afterward, they said all the right things about poise and confidence even while admitting that the pressure on them was cranked up just a bit tonight.

"It's tough, but we can't let it bother us," first baseman Sean Casey said. "We've played well all year. There's no reason to stop now."

Reliever Scott Williamson added: "You don't lose your confidence over one game. We just came up a little short."

With the Reds and Houston Astros both losing and the New York Mets winning, the race for the National League's final two playoff spots tightened tonight. The Reds and Astros remain tied, at 95-65, and the Mets (94-66) are one game back with two games remaining.

If two teams finish tied for the fourth and final playoff berth, there will be a one-game playoff Monday afternoon. If all three teams finish tied, the Mets will get the wild-card berth after winning a coin flip with the other two teams. The Astros and Reds would play for the final spot Monday in Cincinnati.

If the Reds miss the playoffs, they will remember tonight, when they led by three but lost to a team that's 13 games below .500. Denny Neagle allowed a run in six innings before turning a two-run lead over to one of baseball's most reliable bullpens.

The Brewers rallied for two runs in the eighth against Williamson and won it against Scott Sullivan in the 10th.

"We had the lead and couldn't hold it," Reds Manager Jack McKeon said. "That's baseball. We've lost a few like that. It's just one game."

Milwaukee third baseman Jeff Cirillo's two-run single brought the tying runs home in the eighth, and the Brewers won it in the 10th after Sullivan opened the inning by hitting Mark Loretta with a pitch.

After Cirillo popped up a sacrifice bunt attempt, Jeromy Burnitz struck out for the second out. Kevin Barker got a pinch single to right, sending Loretta to third. Ron Belliard got Loretta home with a single to right.

"We can't hang our heads," Sullivan said. "I guarantee you we'll show up tomorrow."

Despite the loss, the Reds seem to sense they are closing in on something special. With a payroll less than half that of the Yankees, Braves and Rangers, the Reds are on the verge of their first playoff appearance in four years.

None of this was expected last winter. General Manager Jim Bowden was so disgusted by the growing gap between baseball's rich and poor teams that he made a stunning suggestion. Instead of the traditional National and American league alignment, he wanted to group the game's wealthiest teams in their own division, the mid-market teams in another division and the small-market teams in still another division.

Bowden lobbied his colleagues that such a configuration would give every team reason for optimism on Opening Day. While the Yankees and Dodgers would be competing against clubs with similar resources, the Twins and Royals would be doing the same thing.

For Bowden, the bottom line was clear: His Reds--and other small-market teams--could not compete in the game's current climate.

Ten months later, he's standing in a clubhouse that buzzed with excitement this afternoon as the Reds closed in on a postseason appearance.

The Reds have solid starting pitching, a terrific bullpen and a lineup that's a nice blend of speed and power. Still, Bowden won't take back a single word he spoke last winter.

"Just because we're winning this season doesn't mean that small-market teams can win," he said. "We're an aberration. This economic system doesn't work. It has to be resolved. In the meantime, we'll enjoy our Cinderella season."

Perhaps they're an aberration, but in a season when the Yankees, Braves and Indians have again been baseball's best teams, the Reds are the most pleasant aberration. Despite his limited resources, Bowden, 34, made a series of brilliant moves that got the Reds into contention.

He acquired Greg Vaughn, who hit his 44th home run tonight, from the San Diego Padres after spending four days persuading his bosses to assume the outfielder's $5.7 million salary. He got Neagle from the Atlanta Braves for second baseman Bret Boone.

He supervised a minor league system that produced star second baseman Pokey Reese and Williamson. And as he dumped big salaries in previous years, he acquired a young first baseman, Casey, who has challenged for a batting championship, and a young pitcher, Danny Graves, who became the closer.

All of a sudden, the scouts who have seen them and the players who have played against them say one thing: The Reds are as good as any team in the NL.

"You don't win 95 games if you can't play with anybody," Bowden said. "This team is legitimate whether people know it or not."

CAPTION: Mike Cameron has his Cincinnati Reds teammates on their feet after hitting a two-run home run in the third inning. Cincinnati scored the game's first three runs.

CAPTION: It's a bit of a stretch, but Reds first baseman Sean Casey collects a soft line drive hit by the Brewers' Jeromy Burnitz in second inning.