McGwire's bid goes wide left showdown today

Cardinal just misses No. 61, braces for Sosa, Cubs at Busch

September 07, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- Mark McGwire came within about 10 feet of tying Roger Maris' single-season home run record at Busch Stadium yesterday, but instead will have to wait at least another day to etch his name more boldly in the baseball record book.

He made 47,904 hearts skip a beat in the sixth inning, hooking a line drive toward the left-field corner off Cincinnati Reds starter Brett Tomko. The ball traveled far enough to reach back 37 years, but not straight enough to land in the Hall of Fame.

The Cardinals got home runs from Ray Lankford and Fernando Tatis in the eighth inning to score a 5-2 victory over the Reds in the finale of a three-game series, but McGwire had a rare hard-luck day.

He was robbed of a hit on a spectacular diving play by Reds shortstop Barry Larkin in the first inning. He walked on four pitches in the fourth. He struck out after coming so close in the sixth. And he had another potential hit taken away by second baseman Bret Boone in the eighth.

Of course, at this point in the historic home run chase, every day presents a new storyline, and today's may be the most compelling yet. Home run rival Sammy Sosa and the Chicago Cubs open a two-game series here this afternoon, allowing fans to see both players challenge the Maris record on the same field.

"I think the atmosphere will be unbelieveable," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "They [the fans] might blow the NTC roof off this place."

Fortunately, there is no roof on Busch Stadium, or McGwire probably would have knocked a couple of holes in it by now, but the ballpark again will be packed to the rafters for the Labor Day showdown.

The only question is whether opposing pitchers will give either slugger anything good to hit.

"We're going to go after Sammy," La Russa said. "I've said all along that I think that you should send your best against their best and see who wins, so I'm not going to be a hypocrite. I think both clubs are going to compete."

The Cubs, however, are in a completely different competitive situation. They are leading the National League wild-card race by a slim margin, so the high-level home run derby may have to take a back seat to purely competitive considerations. La Russa knows that, and says that he wouldn't have it any other way.

"What they are going through is more meaningful," he said. "They've got a chance to win the wild card. We're just trying to get back to .500."

Nevertheless, Cubs pitchers did challenge McGwire during the two-game series last month at Wrigley Field, and he launched his 48th and 49th home runs against Chicago to win an extra-inning game on Aug. 19. Sosa also hit a home run in that game -- briefly taking over the major-league lead.

The Reds had done an excellent job of sidestepping McGwire during two previous series, but the big first baseman did get several opportunities to swing the bat over the weekend, and cranked No. 60 to equal Babe Ruth's 1927 total on Saturday. It was the only home run that McGwire hit against Cincinnati all year.

Tomko, who made headlines recently when he said that he wouldn't mind being on the mound when the record is broken, went after McGwire two of the three times he faced him yesterday and nearly served up No. 61.

"Either way, I was going to have a story to tell," Tomko said. "If I had given up the home run and won the game, that wouldn't have bothered me at all, because my objective is always to win the game. Now, I can say I struck him out, so it's not really an issue."

Reds manager Jack McKeon seemed to enjoy the McGwire hoopla, participating willingly in the daily briefings organized for the hundreds of reporters and broadcasters who now are stalking McGwire's every move.

"It was an exciting three days," McKeon said. "We enjoyed it, but we have another obstacle when we face Randy Johnson tomorrow, so we're sort of going from the frying pan into the fire."

The Reds' pitching staff will get another look at McGwire this week, when the Cardinals visit Three Rivers Stadium on Wednesday and Thursday, but the record could be history by then.

"It's going to happen somewhere," McKeon said. "If I had my choice, I like to see it happen in Cincinnati."

McKeon has gotten to watch both McGwire and Sosa over the past couple of weeks, so he was asked to handicap the home run derby. He sidestepped the question nimbly.

"They're both hot, and they're both great hitters," he said. "If I had to handicap it, I'd say, 'Don't make too many bad pitches.' "

McGwire watch

A look at how Mark McGwire fared yesterday:

First: Lined out to the shortstop.

Fourth: Walked.

Sixth: Took a called third strike.

Eighth: Grounded out.

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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