ST. LOUIS -- It's all or nothing these days for Mark McGwire.
The home run king, so crowned after he hit a record 70 in 1998, is having a singularly strange season. There's been a lot of nothing, considering he's hovered around .200 all year and was even benched for three games last week.
You can still count on him for the long ball, though. His last 11 hits have been home runs.
''It's crazy,'' manager Tony La Russa said. ''A freak.''
Including Monday night's game against the Cincinnati Reds, in which McGwire was 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly, the weirdness had been going on for 66 at-bats. July 18 was the last time he got a hit -- a single -- that didn't allow him to trot or make a curtain call.
The Elias Sports Bureau says it's unprecedented, at least in the last 25 years. The closest anybody else came was Albert Belle, who had eight straight hits for home runs in 1995 when he played for the Cleveland Indians.
Understandably, McGwire wishes this topic would die.
''There's nothing to talk about, and that's being serious and funny at the same time,'' McGwire said. ''You guys write about the stupidest things.
''It's a silly stat. I like singles just as much as home runs.''
McGwire also contends that the streak lives only because of faulty scoring. On Saturday in New York, Mets third baseman Robin Ventura couldn't handle a McGwire smash down the line that bounced over his glove.
When McGwire got to first base, Mets first baseman Todd Zeile delivered the bad news.
''Could you believe they called an error on that one?'' McGwire said Zeile told him.
Since the craziness began, McGwire passed Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew for fifth on the career homer list at 575. His slugging percentage was .698 and his batting average a sickly .175.
He also appears to be heating up. On Saturday, La Russa moved him up to third in the order -- the spot where he hit 70 in '98 -- and he's homered in each of the last two games and eight of the last 14. That includes a first-inning, two-run shot against the Mets' Bruce Chen on Sunday.
The homers have mostly been meaningful as well. The Cardinals were 9-1 in the 10 games in which he hit his 11 homers. Still, on the year he had more home runs (21) than singles (15) and doubles (3) combined and was batting .192.
La Russa said McGwire took the benching in stride. He said it wasn't tough delivering a piece of bad news to a future Hall of Famer.
''Not really,'' La Russa said. ''He knows he's not producing. He could hit fifth or sixth and he wouldn't say a word about it.''
McGwire was on the disabled list for 36 games early in the season after coming back too soon from offseason surgery to correct patella tendinitis in his right knee. He re-emerged May 28 and homered that day.
Since then, however, it's been a struggle.
Team doctors predict McGwire will be back to his old fence-busting self next year. McGwire, 37, certainly isn't acting as if this is the beginning of the end.
''People need to understand and realize I'm having a season because of my knee, not because of my ability,'' McGwire said. ''If I was having a season like this because of my ability, I wouldn't be standing here talking to you.''
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