2 more for McGwire: How far will he go? Swing-for-swing race with Sosa adds up to matter of when, not if

September 03, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire still needs three home runs to break Roger Maris' single-season record, but the increasing intensity of his swing-for-swing duel with Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa has changed the perception of the historic chase.

Now, it's not so much a question of when the home run record will go down, but by how many.

McGwire launched his 58th and 59th home runs of the season in the finale of a three-game series against the Florida Marlins at Pro Player Stadium last night and Sosa stayed on a record pace with his 56th of the year yesterday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Both are at very close range with almost all of September left to play and almost no one left to doubt that Maris will be erased from the record book this year.

"It's quite amazing, isn't it?" said McGwire afterward. "If it's meant to be, whenever it's meant to be it will happen."

His second multi-homer game in a row left him on pace to hit 69 over a full season, a number that wouldn't surprise Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who said earlier this week that -- based on the overall performance this year -- both McGwire and Sosa could end up with 70.

"In Mark's case, he has the confidence, he has the swing and he has the September numbers," La Russa said. "He had 15 last year in September. Add that to what he has and where are you at? I really believe that the common sense of it, but I'm not ignoring the difficulty of the work he still has to do to get to 62."

McGwire didn't have much to work with in his first three plate appearances last night, but he drove a 497-foot shot into the upper deck in left field off reliever Brian Edmondson in the seventh inning. He came back up in the eighth and launched the first pitch from reliever Rob Stanifer into the second deck in left-center field -- 458 feet away -- to set a career high and draw within one home run of joining Maris and Babe Ruth as the only major-leaguers ever to reach 60 in a single season.

Each time, the crowd of 45,170 gave him a deafening ovation and McGwire responded with his third and fourth curtain calls of the three-game series. The Cardinals would go on to score a 14-4 victory, but the final score paled in significance to the home run derby and the amazing fan reaction that McGwire receives at every road stop.

"They're embracing myself, Sammy and [Ken] Griffey, not just me," McGwire said. "It's fabulous. It's the best thing that could happen to baseball right now. America is embracing us, but they are also embracing baseball."

The tit-for-tat competition with Sosa has added tremendous excitement to the chase, but McGwire said earlier this week that he doesn't think it has had an impact on either player's performance.

"It has nothing to do with it, really," McGwire said, "because all we can do is take care of ourselves. We're not fighting against each other. It's not like we're both going for the same Oscar."

McGwire had to dig deep for his first home run last night, golfing an ankle-high slider into a section of seats that are so high above left field that they generally aren't placed on sale for baseball. The second homer also came on a slider, but one that was up in the strike zone.

"I couldn't believe he hit [the first one]," said former Milford Mill star Brian Jordan. "It was a golf swing. I was on deck and my mouth was hanging wide-open. I wish I could hit a ball like that."

La Russa has long contended that it would come down to whether opposing pitchers were willing to challenge McGwire, who drew walks in two of his first three plate appearances last night and leads the major leagues with 145. That was a major issue midway through the season, but does not seem to be a problem now.

The complexion of the chase has changed along with the chemistry of the National League wild-card race. The Cardinals have fallen out of contention, leaving opposing pitchers on non-contending teams with less reason to pitch around McGwire. The Cubs still are fighting for a playoff berth, but the free-swinging Sosa does not get nearly the same respect from the mound. He doesn't even rank among the league's top 10 in walks.

He may not be as strong as McGwire -- who is? -- but he is seeing enough hittable pitches to stay close on the heels of the man even Sosa concedes is the best candidate to break the Maris record.

Sosa hit a sixth-inning home run off Cincinnati pitcher Jason Bere in the Cubs' 4-2 victory over the Reds to tie Cubs great Hack Wilson for the franchise record with 56 homers. McGwire had passed Wilson the night before to set a National League home run record.

Both McGwire and Sosa get the day off today. The Cardinals play host to the Reds this weekend at Busch Stadium and the Cubs travel to Pittsburgh for three games against the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium. Then the Cubs and Cardinals meet for the final time this year in a two-game series in St. Louis that begins Monday.

Maris watch

Tracking the pursuit of Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in 1961:

McGwire 59

Sosa 56

Games remaining

McGwire 23

Sosa 22

Yesterday

McGwire 2-for-3

Sosa

2 HRs 2-for-4, 1 HR

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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