CHICAGO, SEPT. 24 -- There is one pitch Frank Viola wishes he hadn't thrown in today's game against the Chicago Cubs -- the one Ryne Sandberg hit into the left field bleachers in the sixth inning.

Sandberg's league-leading 38th home run ignited a three-run rally as the Cubs beat New York, 4-3, and dropped the second-place Mets three games behind Pittsburgh in the National League East.

New York, 34-41 on the road, lowered Pittsburgh's magic number to seven. Any combination of Mets' losses and Pirates' victories totalling seven will give Pittsburgh its first division title since 1979.

"It doesn't look good," Viola said, "but we still have time."

Viola (19-11) was trying to join Doug Drabek of the Pirates, the league's only 20-game winner, at that prestigious level. Viola was leading, 3-1, in the Cubs' home finale when Sandberg homered for the third time in five games and again moved ahead of the Mets' Darryl Strawberry for the league lead in homers.

"Sandberg's home run is the one pitch I wish I could take back," Viola said of the change-up that wound up in the seats.

Mark Grace, Andre Dawson and Luis Salazar followed with consecutive singles to tie the game. Shawon Dunston grounded into a double play, but Doug Dascenzo singled home Dawson with the go-ahead run.

"They were able to put together a bunch of hits," Viola said. "But it's only one game."

Paul Assenmacher (7-2) finished with 3 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing five hits. The left-hander got into trouble with two out in the ninth when Dave Magadan reached on a wild pitch on which he struck out and Gregg Jefferies singled. Strawberry flied to left to end it.

The Mets, who start a three-game series at Montreal on Tuesday, stranded seven runners in the final four innings, 10 in all.

"We had three opportunities to score runs," Mets Manager Bud Harrelson said. "Somehow we managed to wiggle out of them."

Harrelson said he hopes the Cubs will remember New York when they play a three-game series against the Pirates that starts Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

"I hope Chicago has some momentum going into Pittsburgh," Harrelson said. "And I hope we have it in Montreal."

Kevin McReynolds, who broke out of a three-for-31 slump with three hits on Sunday, homered in second and fourth innings off Les Lancaster as New York took a 2-0 lead. McReynolds has 24 home runs this season, second-most on the Mets behind Strawberry's 37.

Chicago scored in the fifth. Dunston reached on Jefferies' second error of the game at third base, took third on Dascenzo's single and scored on Joe Girardi's groundout.

Howard Johnson put New York ahead by 3-1 in the sixth when he homered off Randy Kramer, Johnson's 23rd homer of the season.

Blue Jays Win Toss

Associated Press

The Toronto Blue Jays won a coin flip for the right to be the home team if a one-game playoff against Boston is needed to decide the American League East title.

A tie after 162 games would send the Red Sox to Toronto's SkyDome on Thursday, Oct. 4 at 1:05 p.m. EDT, unless there also is a playoff in the National League East.

If the New York Mets and the Pirates also tie for first, their playoff in Pittsburgh would be in the afternoon and Toronto and Boston would play at 7:05 p.m.

NEW YORK ab r h bi CHICAGO ab r h bi H.Johnsn ss 4 1 1 1 Walton cf 4 0 0 0 Magadan 1b 4 0 0 0 Sandberg 2b 4 1 2 1 DReed pr 0 0 0 0 Grace 1b 4 1 2 0 Jefferies 3b 5 0 2 0 Dawson rf 4 1 2 0 Strawbrry rf 5 0 1 0 Salazar 3b 4 0 1 1 McReynlds lf 4 2 3 2 Dunston ss 3 1 0 0 Herr 2b 4 0 2 0 Dascenzo lf 3 0 2 1 Boston cf 4 0 1 0 Girardi c 3 0 1 1 O'Brien c 2 0 0 0 Lancaster p 1 0 0 0 Teufel ph 1 0 0 0 Villanueva ph 1 0 0 0 Hundley c 0 0 0 0 Kramer p 0 0 0 0 Viola p 2 0 0 0 Assenmachr p 1 0 0 0 Tabler ph 1 0 0 0 Innis p 0 0 0 0 Miller ph 1 0 0 0 Totals 37 3 10 3 Totals 32 4 10 4 New York 010 101 000 3 Chicago 000 013 00x 4

E: Jefferies 2, Dunston. DP: New York 2, Chicago 1. LOB: New York 10, Chicago 4. 2B: Grace. HR: McReynolds 2 (24), HJohnson (23), Sandberg (38). SB: Dunston (24), Girardi (8). S: OBrien. METS IP H R ER BB SO Viola (L,19-11) 6 8 4 3 0 3 Innis 2 2 0 0 0 1 CUBS IP H R ER BB SO Lancaster 5 3 2 2 0 2 Kramer

1/3 2 1 1 0 0 Assen

WP: Assenmacher. PB: Girardi.

Umpires: Home, Bonin; First, Rennert; Second, Tata; Third, Quick.

T: 2:54. A: 12,489.