With two mighty swings that made electrifying connections, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire rang up home runs Nos. 45 and 46 tonight to pull virtually even with his record pace of last season, when he hit a phenomenal 70. The mammoth strongman led the Cardinals to a 7-1 romp over the struggling Chicago Cubs with two-run blasts off rookie starter Kyle Farnsworth and reliever Rod Beck.
McGwire's home runs came in the Cardinals' 117th game of the season. Last season, the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder hit No. 45 in the team's 105th game and No. 46 in the 115th game. Last season's No. 47 came in the Cardinals' 118th game, meaning McGwire will need a home run in Saturday afternoon's game to keep pace with himself. He will be facing another Cubs rookie, the winless Micah Bowie. Chicago's Sammy Sosa remained at 43 home runs tonight after striking out twice and walking twice.
McGwire had not homered since he hit career Nos. 500 and 501 eight days ago. But he has missed several turns at bat since then. He left Tuesday night's game in Philadelphia in the second inning with tightness in his lower back that forced him out of Wednesday's game, too.
Tonight's performance also included a single and five runs batted in. A sellout crowd of 48,628 jumped to its feet with a sustained ovation after his second home run, which gave McGwire consecutive games at Busch Stadium in which he hit two homers.
"Every time you go out there you do your best," said McGwire, trying to play down the reality that he is hot, having homered in 12 of his last 20 games. "This is an extra spice series [with the Cubs]. You get your juices flowing. But any time you walk into Busch Stadium, you get your juices flowing. It's sold out every day.
"There's no home run race," he continued. "You don't play for a home run race. I take satisfaction in preparing myself every day and to do what I can. What else can I do? If I hit a home run, well . . . I do what I can to help the ballclub."
J.D. Drew and Fernando Tatis also hit home runs for St. Louis as right-hander Kent Bottenfield improved to 16-5 and the Cardinals moved one game over .500. He allowed one run, on a bases-loaded walk to Sosa, and five hits over 6 2/3 innings.
McGwire hit a 3-2 pitch off Farnsworth in the third inning that carried 389 feet, soaring over the head of Sosa and into the lower deck in right field. No. 46 came on a 1-1 pitch from Beck, immediately after an obviously fruitless conference on the mound with his catcher. This ball smacked into the lower deck in left-center, 419 feet.
This was the sixth time this season that McGwire has hit two home runs in a game. Meanwhile, Sosa continued in a hitting slump. He has gone 3 for 31 over his last nine games.
Bottenfield's victory makes him the second NL pitcher to reach 16 wins, tying him with Houston's Mike Hampton. "The only negative about Mark," said Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa, "is that sometimes good performances get overlooked. Bottenfield pitched a heck of a game." He then mentioned several other players, hoping that none would be lost amid another night of McGwire heroics. "I think that covers everybody," La Russa said.
But what neither he nor McGwire could change was that McGwire was the one person mostly everyone was talking about. His two home runs gave new meaning to this season's home run chase: Now the person he is chasing is none other than himself and the 70 he hit last year.