For the Cincinnati Reds, winning the National League West in 1990 has been like giving birth. If you're having problems coming to grips with the Reds' utter lameness down the stretch (join the club), think of them as being in labor for a month.

They will win this ugly, dispassionate thing because somebody has to. TV requires that two teams from two distinct cities play for the league championship. Otherwise, we could watch Doc Gooden pitch to Darryl Strawberry, which would be the only sexy post-season matchup the National League has to offer.The Reds go to Houston Wednesday and Thursday and play like they're underwater. Does it matter? It does not.

Twice, the Reds drown in the Astrodome. But Wednesday, the Dodgers blow a four-run lead and lose to the Padres. If LA is a pennant contender, Tom Lasorda is anorexic.

In this swell pennant "race," LA has managed to lose an 11-2 lead in the eighth inning of one game and a 7-0 lead late in another. In this race, LA has known five times in the past three weeks that the Reds already had lost, even before the Dodgers set foot on the Pacific time zone sod. What an opportunity.

LA lost each time. What a team.

When did the Reds' year get this way? When did the magic of the 33-12 beginning melt to its current distasteful and unsightly 84-66 nub? Used to be, in April and May, you wanted this season to last forever. Now, you want it pulled before the next commercial. Listening to the radio broadcast of a recent game, you'd have thought the Reds were the Braves.

Don't blame it on announcers Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall, who were every bit as bored and disheartened as they sounded. If anything, give them your compassion. They have to watch this stuff.

Strangely, the Reds talk now about the "pressure" of spending the entire season in first place. Oh, yeah, what a rack.

This winning stuff stinks. And cancel the six months in Maui, too. OK? The duress would be just too much.

In the paper the other day, someone described the NL West race as "simmering." Right.

Lasorda, the Dodgers manager, said it better: "Every time you think you know how long the season is, you find out it's even longer."

Oh, yes. By now, the Reds think this season started in about 1923. The passion, enthusiasm and optimism of May has descended into the dungeon of September.

LA Raiders owner Al Davis would have a motto for this 50-year year: Just Survive, Baby.

The Reds aren't choking, doubting themselves or looking over their shoulders. Whenever they've needed a win, they've gotten it.

It's just that they are playing this pennant race as if they were reading a dictionary or studying Zen. They might as well be sitting in a corner, noses to the wall.

For them, the Magic Number isn't magic. It's an instrument of torture.

It's like a leaky faucet at three in the morning. Every day, in every newspaper in every city along the never-ending road, there is the Reds' magic number.

Now, it's 9. Wasn't it 9 yesterday? Wasn't it 9 a month ago?

Everybody else's magic number is moving steadily downward. Ours treads water. Why is this?

The season doesn't progress so much as drift, a lazy cloud that hides the sun for the entire afternoon.

By now, the season is a toothache. Somebody pull it. The Reds want the regular season over yesterday. They've led the West for 150 games. Isn't that enough?

It's a war of attrition. The Reds are winning by losing. They are mediocre. Lucky for them, LA is something less. It's like going into a battle with 100,000 soldiers, against an army of 30,000. You can lose 90,000 of yours, but if the other guy loses his 30,000, you still win.

Sometime in the next week to 10 days, the Reds will win the West for the first time in 11 years. If justice prevails, the Dodgers will help by blowing a nine-run lead with two out, none on and two strikes in the ninth.

The Reds shouldn't have to win a title on style points. Nobody else is. Nobody but Oakland. But after 33-12, maybe you expected a little more than 90 or so wins and flat champagne. That's what it looks like now.