With tips of the cap to Tony Perez and - of all people - Jim Leyland, unlikely sluggers Mariano Duncan and Billy Hatcher powered the Cincinnati Reds into command of the National League playoffs Monday.

Duncan belted a three-run homer and drove in four runs and Hatcher added a two-run shot to send Cincinnati to a 6-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.The romp gave the Reds a 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven series. Tuesday's night's Game

4 matches opening game starters Jose Rijo and Bob Walk.

Duncan credited former Cincinnati slugger and current Reds' batting coach Perez for his new-found power. Hatcher simply thanked Pirates' Manager Leyland for trading him to the Reds.

"I give all the credit to Perez," said Duncan, who went 3-for-5 with four runs batted in Monday. "He believes in me 100 percent, whether I'm going good or going bad.

"I always dreamed of hitting .300," noted Duncan, a .235 career hitter before this year. "With Tony helping me in the spring and early season, I wound up hitting .306 this year. Tony is one of the great coaches in the major leagues right now."

Duncan is also a lot stronger than he used to be.

"I lifted a lot of weights over the winter, but not just so I could hit home runs," he said. "It's a long season with 162 games and you have to be strong to keep making contact at the plate, to keep stealing bases and scoring runs."

Hatcher, who went 3-for-4 with a double and single in addition to his homer, said he considers Leyland one of the finest gentlemen in the majors for fulfilling his request to be traded at the start of this season.

"I love playing every day, but with (Andy) Van Slyke, (Barry) Bonds and (Bobby) Bonilla in the Pirates' outfield. I wasn't going to

get too many at-bats," said Hatcher. "I asked Leyland to trade me and he did. I'm thankful for it. I was lucky to go to Cincinnati because they were looking for another outfielder."

Even though Hatcher hurt Leyland Monday, Leyland insisted, "I'm happy for Billy. He deserves to be playing every day. I had no playing time for Billy unless somebody got hurt. I have somebody sitting, making $700,000, and no playing time for him. He wasn't going to be happy here.

"We wanted to do something for him and we did," added Leyland. "We just didn't think we'd see him in October."

If Leyland's club is to come back and win the playoffs, they'll have to do it back in Cincinnati, where a sixth and seventh game will be played if needed. But that doesn't bother Leyland.

"It's a funny thing, Cincinnati has played really well over here this season and we've played well over there," noted Leyland. "I really don't feel there is a home field advantage. It's a seven game series and we're only down 2-1."

Since the seven-game format began in 1985, only the '85 Cardinals and '88 Dodgers have rallied from 2-1 deficits to win.

Cincinnati starter and winner Danny Jackson went 5 1/3 innings, yielding seven hits and two runs. Reliever Rob Dibble, who has struck out eight of the 13 batters he has faced in the playoffs, struck out three in pitching 12/3 innings. Randy Myers struck out the side in the ninth for his second save of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh starter Zane Smith lasted five innings, surrendering eight hits and five runs. The left-hander struck out five and walked none, but got behind in the count in crucial situations like Hatcher's at-bat in the fifth.

Deadlocked 2-2 after four innings, Hatcher led off the fifth with a double to left-center and moved to third on Jackson's sacrifice. Third baseman Jeff King saved a run by knocking down Barry Larkin's smash down the line and holding Hatcher at third, but Larkin legged out a hit. Duncan made King's great defensive play irrelevant when he belted a three-run homer to left-center.

"Hatcher's hit after we had tied it was a really big turning point in the game," conceded Leyland.

Pittsburgh, which depends on slugging to win most of the time, has scored only eight runs in the first three games. That's the lowest three-game playoff output since weak-hitting Houston tallied only seven in 1986.

The Pirates' "Big Three" - Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke - have combined for just seven hits in 34 at-bats (.206 average) with no home runs and only two RBI.