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MONSTER MASHES BY MCGWIRE, SOSA PUT MARIS IN SIGHT

One in the afternoon, one at night. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire made the home run chase an all-day affair.

Sosa and McGwire's pursuit of Roger Maris and history sped up as both sluggers connected for home runs on Sunday.

After Sosa hit his 54th during the day in Denver as the Chicago Cubs beat Colorado, 4-3, McGwire thrilled a home crowd in St. Louis and a prime time national TV audience with No. 55 as the Cardinals beat Atlanta, 8-7.

McGwire has hit his last three homers on the same day Sosa homered. The duo have homered on the same date 18 times this season.

Just coincidence, says McGwire.

"This is not a challenge, this is not a race to whatever, we don't get an Oscar at the end, for like best actor," he said. "He takes care of himself, I take care of myself and wherever the chips fall at the end of the season, that's where it is."

In the seventh inning, McGwire hit a 1-0 pitch from Atlanta reliever Dennis Martinez (3-6) over the backdrop beyond the center-field wall. The 501-foot shot was his fifth 500-foot-plus homer at Busch this season, and the crowd of 44,051 demanded -- and got -- a curtain call.

McGwire's first homer in four games came one day after he was ejected for arguing a called third strike in the first inning. The ejection, his first since joining the Cardinals last year, sparked a noisy game-long demonstration from usually placid Busch Stadium fans.

McGwire, within one of tying Hack Wilson's NL record for homers in a season, has 26 games remaining to break Maris' record of 61 homers in 1961. Fifteen of those games are at Busch Stadium, where he has hit 29 homers to obliterate the previous record of 17.

"I'm going to give it a shot," McGwire said. "That's all I can do. Let's see what happens."

The Cardinals open a three-game series tonight against the Florida Marlins at Pro Player Stadium. McGwire tonight will face left-hander Kirt Ojala, against whom he is 0 for 7 with four strikeouts lifetime, followed by two pitchers he has feasted on this season -- right-hander Livan Hernandez and lefty Jesus Sanchez.

Against Hernandez at Busch Stadium on May 16, McGwire hit a 545-foot blast to straightaway center -- which stands as his longest homer of the season. Two days later he hit one 478 feet to left off Sanchez, McGwire's seventh-longest of the year.

Sosa took advantage of his last game in the place where the ball flies a little bit farther to temporarily tie McGwire.

Sosa's first inning shot off Colorado's Darryl Kile traveled an estimated 482 feet, striking a sign adjacent to the left-field scoreboard. The drive, which could be described as McGwiresque, was the longest homer at Coors Field this season and the fifth longest in the ballpark's history.

Sosa wouldn't speculate on whether Sunday's smash was the longest of his career, but his manager would.

"I never watch my homers because I have a lot of respect for the home team," Sosa said, "but as soon as I hit it, I knew it was out of the ballpark. I just didn't know how far away it was going to land. I made good contact on a slider."

Cubs manager Jim Riggleman insisted he doesn't get caught up in homer distances, saying, "I don't care if they scrape the back of the wall coming down."

But he added in obvious awe, "I think that is the best ball I've ever seen hit. Sammy may say another one felt better or traveled farther, but that was some shot."

And although he and McGwire are creeping up on Maris, Sosa continues to insist he's not the one who'll make history.

"This is a Mark McGwire show," he said. "No matter what happened, I believe he's going to come back as always. I'm pulling for Mark. My situation is not to go out there and steal the show. My situation is to try to go out there and do my job."

Jose Hernandez and Gary Gaetti also homered for the Cubs, who claimed the series 3-1.

Kevin Tapani pitched seven strong innings for the Cubs, who moved into a tie with the New York Mets in the NL wild-card race.

Tapani (16-7) equaled his career high for wins in a season, holding the Rockies to six hits and one run in seven innings. He exited after yielding a leadoff double to pinch-hitter John Vander Wal in the eighth.

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