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SOSA, MCGWIRE UNLEASH A RAPID-FIRE ASSAULT

Mark McGwire has been reluctant to talk about his home runs all season. And now, after No. 53, he's having to explain a lot more than how he's hitting them.

McGwire became the first National Leaguer to hit 53 homers in 49 years in the St. Louis Cardinals' 4-3 loss to the Pirates in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

McGwire, who broke Babe Ruth's record for homers in a span of three consecutive seasons on Saturday, hit a 2-2 pitch from Ricardo Rincon into the left-field seats at Three Rivers Stadium with two outs in the eighth inning.

His sixth homer in five days left McGwire eight short of tying Roger Maris' record of 61 in 1961.

The high drive initially looked like it might make the seldom-reached upper deck, and the estimate of 393 feet seemed to be way off. McGwire also took a curtain call.

"They kept clapping for about a minute, so I ducked my head out and gave them a wave," McGwire said. "I hope the Pirates didn't mind. I wish everybody in baseball could feel the reception I'm getting."

McGwire is also getting attention for his use of a controversial over-the-counter pill he's been taking for more than a year. He came under increased scrutiny this weekend after it was reported by the Associated Press that he has been using androstenedione, known as "andro," a testosterone-producing pill banned by the NFL and NCAA.

On Sunday, the Cardinals released a statement saying they have no objection to McGwire's use of the pill.

"Due to current research that lacks documentary evidence of any adverse side effects, the Cardinals' medical staff cannot object to Mark's choice to use this legal and over-the-counter supplement," the statement said.

McGwire's homer came just minutes after Chicago's Sammy Sosa hit his 50th homer for the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

"Really, that's really cool," McGwire said when told about Sosa, who also hit No. 51 in the Cubs' 13-3 loss to Houston.

McGwire and Sosa have 32 games left to make history.

McGwire and Sosa didn't hit the day's only noteworthy homers. San Francisco's Barry Bonds hit his 400th career homer and San Diego's Greg Vaughn set a career-high with his 43rd this season.

McGwire became just the third NL player to hit as many as 53 homers in a season, joining the Pirates' Ralph Kiner (54 in 1949) and the Chicago Cubs' Hack Wilson, who hit a league-record 56 homers in 1930.

"We are trying to make the playoffs and Mark's trying to
break the record. I got my money on Mark," Sosa said. "He's the type who can hit five or six in two days."

The Cubs lost to the Houston Astros. Both of Sosa's homers off of Fernando Lima carried far over Wrigley Field's ivy-covered walls -- one left the park -- but they couldn't carry the Cubs to victory on a day when the wind was blowing out at 16 mph.

Craig Biggio hit a pair of three-run homers and Brad Ausmus had four hits, including a three-run homer, and five RBIs as the Astros increased their NL Central lead to 9 1/2 games over Chicago.

The Cubs remained a game behind the New York Mets (4-3 losers to Arizona) in the race for a National League wild-card playoff berth.

Pirates starter Jason Schmidt said every opposing pitcher realizes he might soon be in the record books, too.

"Jon Lieber and I were talking about that," Schmidt said. "We're part of history. This will be with us for the rest of our lives, but I don't care. He's such a great guy, everybody is excited."

Except the fans who bought tickets for today's game in Pittsburgh. McGwire plans to take the day off, the second game he would skip in a four-day span.

McGwire said the day off has been planned for week, and he probably will skip only one more game the rest of the season.

Overshadowed by McGwire's run on baseball's most storied record were Fernando Tatis' 5-for-5 day for St. Louis and the Pirates' seventh consecutive win, matching their season high.

Before homering, McGwire, who helped lure the Pirates' first consecutive regular-season sellouts since they moved into Three Rivers Stadium in 1970, grounded out, walked twice and doubled ahead of Ron Gant's run-scoring grounder in the fifth.

Cardinal manager Tony La Russa's strategy of batting his pitcher eighth to provide more protection in front of McGwire backfired as Kent Mercker (8-11) struck out with two runners on and two out in both the second and fifth innings.

Sosa, meanwhile, said he's not hung up on racing McGwire or chasing Maris. But his forceful swing, one that looks like it could rip his rib cage apart when he misses, tells a different story.

"I'm not going to lie to you. Lately, I've been swinging a little bit out of control. I was impatient the last couple of days," Sosa said.

"People see the way I swing but it is the same. The only thing I did I was more relaxed and tried to make contact. When I try to pull everything, I get out of control. I told myself to slow down and be patient," Sosa said.

"I'm still having a good time and tonight I'm going to go home and have a couple of glasses of wine with my wife," he said. "I still have 30-some games left. Let's see what happens."

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