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A perfect game vanished with the crack of Mark McGwire's bat Monday night at Wrigley Field, and the Chicago Cubs disappeared right before the eyes of 38,085 witnesses.

McGwire broke up Jon Lieber's bid for a perfect game with two outs in the seventh inning when he blasted an 0-1 pitch into the right-center-field bleachers for his 59th home run.

What happened next was an adventure in Cubs futility.

The St. Louis Cardinals knocked Lieber out of the game with six runs on six straight hits, including three home runs, in a 7-2 victory.

"It was like Pearl Harbor," manager Jim Riggleman said.

McGwire's shot began a deluge of runs against Lieber. Before the inning was over, Lieber was sent to the showers and the Cardinals had scored seven runs on eight straight hits.

"Lieber had it going," McGwire said. "I can't remember ever seeing someone having a perfect game and then eight straight hits (reliever Rodney Myers yielded the last two). He was flat-out nasty. He had it going, and we just got some hits. I tip my hat to him. He was throwing some of the best sliders I had seen all year."

McGwire has four home runs over his last three games, pulling to within two of Sammy Sosa in the home run race, 61-59. With one more homer, he becomes the second player in history with two 60-homer seasons, joining Sosa.

Sosa finished 1 for 3, remaining on 61 home runs with 12 games left. He launched a long fly against St. Louis starter Mark Thompson in the first, but a 16 mph wind held it in. McGwire's homer had just a little more oomph on it.

"I was really surprised that the ball carried that far after Sammy's first at-bat," McGwire said.

Lieber (8-11), who has lost eight straight games, was cruising until McGwire opened the floodgates. Mark Grace had dropped a pop foul off the bat of leadoff hitter Edgar Renteria to start the game with an error, but Lieber then reeled off 20 straight outs.

"I've never been in a game that long where I didn't give up any hits," Lieber (8-11) said. "I wasn't nervous or anything like that. There's no doubt that (the no-hitter) was going on in my mind, but I wasn't scoreboard-watching or anything like that. I just knew every time I went out there it was 1-2-3, 1-2-3."

The perfect game and no-hitter appeared to be goners in the sixth when pitcher Mark Thompson lined an 0-2 pitch toward right. But Grace made a leaping snare of the liner for the third out. Lieber stared at the infield grass, thanking his lucky stars. That luck soon would run out.

"That was 6 2/3 innings of the best baseball that has been pitched," Riggleman said. "Then there was a complete turnaround. I've never seen anything like it."

Vaughn too much for Padres

SAN DIEGO -- After trading Greg Vaughn to Cincinnati in February, San Diego Padres executives reasoned that there was no way the slugger would hit 50 homers again.

They might be right. The homer Vaughn hit over the 370-foot sign in left-center field in a 12-1 rout of the Padres was only his 41st. With the victory, the Reds pulled within 2 1/2 games of NL Central leader Houston and within 3 1/2 games of the New York Mets in the wild-card race.

Houston lost to Pittsburgh, 11-5; the Mets did not play.

Vaughn felt the homer was mostly irrelevant, as it capped the eight-run eighth. Vaughn, who hit a career-high 50 homers in leading the Padres to the World Series last year, would rather have his homers put his team ahead.

But since the homer came in San Diego, it fell all right.

"The baseball executives said there's no way I was going to have a good year, like I was over the hill or something," Vaughn said. "I play to win and I believe the numbers will take care of themselves, and they are."

"It's nice to see us win a game when they lose," manager Jack McKeon said of gaining a game on Houston. "We've just got to keep winning."

San Diego's Tony Gwynn singled in the third inning for his 3,054th career hit, moving him past Rod Carew for sole possession of 18th on the all-time list. He also extended his hitting streak to 15 games.

Brown making amends

PITTSBURGH -- Brant Brown spent six months wishing everyone would forget about the dropped fly ball that almost cost the Chicago Cubs a trip to the postseason.

On Monday night, he hit a home run the Houston Astros won't soon forget if they don't make the playoffs.

Brown had a three-run homer among his three hits and drove in four runs as the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Astros, 11-5.

"I don't think anyone's feeling pressure," Astros manager Larry Dierker said. "We don't have a big lead, but we have enough of a lead."

Around the horn

Derrick Gibson hit the first two homers of his major league career, doubled and drove in six runs to lead the Rockies over the Diamondbacks, 12-7. . . . Jeromy Burnitz hit his 100th homer as a Brewer and Alex Ochoa had a go-ahead, two-run single in the seventh inning as the Brewers beat the Phillies, 5-4. . . . Eric Karros hit an RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning and the Dodgers defeated the Giants, 6-5.

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