The Cincinnati Reds' best pitcher misjudged a hot hitter. Their Gold Glove outfielder misjudged a routine fly ball. And their rawest rookie misjudged a critical steal attempt.

They only thing they didn't misjudge Thursday was their predicament.The Pittsburgh Pirates' rally from a three-run deficit to a 4-3 victory in the first National League playoff game put history in their corner. First-game victories usually translate into World Series appearances.

Now the Pirates can send their best pitcher, 22-game-winner Doug Drabek, to the mound today with the opportunity to take a 2-0 lead back to Pittsburgh.

"This put us in a difficult situation," said Reds outfielder Eric Davis, whose mistake was largely responsible for putting them there. "You always like to win the first one at home."

Winning the first one, period, is a harbinger. In the 21 NL playoffs, the first-game winner went to the World Series 13 times.

"It sets a precedent as far as the rest of the series is concerned," said Sid Bream, who pulled the Pirates out of a 3-0 hole. "Winning here in Cincinnati is definitely a big plus."

And a big surprise, given how it started.

Everything seemed to fall just right for the Reds. Jose Rijo, a dominating pitcher the last six weeks, set the Pirates down in the first inning with ease. The Reds then ran off three first-inning runs against Bob Walk, who looked to the bullpen before the inning was over to see a bad omen - relievers warming up.

Pirates manager Jim Leyland, who chose Walk over Drabek for the first-game start, admitted he was "fairly close" to a pitching change when Hal Morris singled home a run, Davis doubled home another and Paul O'Neill followed with a double for a 3-0 lead and just one out.

"You know guys are jittery sometimes in that first inning," Leyland said. "I figured he'd settle down if I stuck with him."

He did. Walk allowed just one more hit through the sixth, keeping the Pirates within range. There was just one small problem: Rijo's been nearly invincible with a leadlately.

Rijo had pitched complete-game victories in his last three starts before the Reds clinched the NL West. He had five complete games in his last nine starts, his only loss coming in a game when Cincinnati scored just one run.

The Reds couldn't have asked for anything better. Now they know better.

"In the playoffs, three runs don't win the game," Davis said. "That's evident."

Jose Lind tripled home a run in the third on the first hit allowed by Rijo. Barry Bonds walked with two out in the fourth, and Rijo made the first of the Reds' three major mistakes.

He threw to first base eight times with Bream at bat, becoming preoccupied with keeping Bonds from stealing. When he finally came to the plate with a 1-1 pitch, it was his worst pitch of the night.

A fastball, right where Bream's shirt said "Pittsburgh."

"It was a terrible feeling," Rijo said. "I know I made one mistake, and I paid for it."

"I was glad he wasn't concentrating really well at that point in the ballgame," Bream said.

Bream's two-run homer tied the game and sapped the Reds' momentum. It also gave the Pirates a reason for confidence - they'd won all 15 regular-season games in which Bream hit a homer.

Davis helped extend the amazing streak into postseason play with his unusual misplay in the seventh.

Gary Redus singled and Jay Bell drew a two-out walk from Norm Charlton. Andy Van Slyke, in a 3-for-29 slump, then slapped a routine fly ball towards left field for what appeared to be a threat-ending out. But Davis never got to it.

The three-time Gold Glove outfielder went back on the ball and then squared his body around too soon. When he made a desperate lunge, the ball went over his glove and bounced off the warning track for a ground-rule double, scoring Redus.

Davis made just two errors all season. He's played left field flawlessly since he was moved there in August to ease the strain on his sore right knee.

"I was playing shallow to try to cut the run off at the plate," Davis said. "He hit it harder than I thought he did. I just misjudged it."

Van Slyke was as surprised as Davis.

"I thought I'd hit it pretty well," he said. "I did notice he was playing shallow and I knew the ball would get to the warning track."

The Reds would get just one chance to make up for the mistake. They wasted that, too.

Bob Patterson came on to pitch the ninth and gave up a lead-off pinch-hit single to Todd Benzinger. Patterson then walked Davis, but got the force at third when Ron Oester tried to sacrifice.

Manager Lou Piniella put rookie Billy Bates in to pinch run for Oester at first, with Davis on second. Bates, called up at the end of the season, made the playoff roster when second baseman Bill Doran had back surgery.

His inexperience showed.

Davis, who has permission to run whenever he wants, took off on a steal of third with Chris Sabo at bat. Bates decided to follow - a bad choice.

The Pirates were looking for the double steal and decided to go for Bates at second. Mike LaValliere's throw beat Bates by three feet for the second out.

"He's quick and the fastest runner off the bench," Piniella said. "If he doesn't get a good jump, the coaches have told hm not to go. But Bates said he thought he had a good jump."

He didn't.

"It was a reaction thing and I thought I had a better jump than I did," Bates said. "I shouldn't have gone."

The mistake turned decisive when Ted Power struck out Sabo to end the game, giving the Pirates a 1-0 lead with their best pitcher scheduled to start the second game today.

"We were down and came back," Van Slyke said. "The way we won tonight will be a big factor in our confidence."

Said Rijo: "We made too many mistakes. It's hard when you make mistakes like we did today."