Mark McGwire is going home to St. Louis with 59 homers and four new souvenirs.

Mighty Mac hit two homers for the second consecutive night Wednesday against the Florida Marlins, leaving him just two shy of Roger Maris' 37-year-old major-league record.And for the second night in a row, fans who retrieved the balls turned them in.

"I'm glad there are people like that out there," McGwire said. "It shows you what the game means to some people."

What McGwire means to the game was evident following his latest home runs, which came in a 14-4 victory by the St. Louis Cardinals. The crowd of 45,170 responded to each homer with a standing ovation that continued even after he disappeared into the dugout, and he eventually re-emerged for a curtain call, punching the air three times with his fist.

Now it's three to go to break Maris' record. The only other player ahead of McGwire is Babe Ruth, who hit 60 homers in 1927. Ruth also hit 59 in 1921.

Sammy Sosa remains in the race. The Chicago Cubs outfield hit his 56th homer Wednesday afternoon.

"Quite amazing, isn't it?" McGwire said. "What's going on now is pretty big."

The Cardinals begin a three-game series Friday at home against Cincinnati, but McGwire declined to speculate about his chances of breaking the record this weekend.

"I'll do my best," he said. "Let's not look so far ahead and just take what today has given us."

McGwire's eighth multihomer game this season was the 51st of his career. With 23 games remaining, he's on a 69-homer pace, and his recent charge - 12 homers in 15 days - gives him a shot at 70.

A few hours after Sosa hit his 56th, McGwire again feasted on the worst pitching staff in the NL, homering in the seventh inning against Brian Edmondson and in the eighth against Rob Stanifer. Each was a two-run homer, giving McGwire 125 RBIs.

"You can't throw the guy any pitch he can reach, or he hits it 500 feet," Stanifer said. "It's a little unfair at times. He's like the Michael Jordan of baseball. He's unreal."

The first homer, which landed halfway up in the upper deck in left field, was estimated at 497 feet, making it the third-longest in the history of Pro Player Stadium. The second homer 30 minutes later was to left center and traveled an estimated 458 feet.

McGwire broke Hack Wilson's 68-year-old NL record of 56 home runs with two Tuesday. Now the Cardinals slugger has surpassed his career best of 58 homers, set last year when he hit 34 for Oakland and 24 for St. Louis.

Even McGwire was impressed by his first homer Wednesday. He golfed a 2-1 pitch from Ed-mond-son that was low and inside, then pumped his right fist as he trotted toward first base.

"The pitch was probably three inches off the ground," McGwire said. "I amazed myself that I went down and got it."

When McGwire stepped to the plate again in the eighth, catcher Randy Knorr was still shaking his head about the homer.

"How did you hit that pitch?" Knorr asked.

"I have no idea," McGwire said.

Then he lined a first-pitch slider from Stanifer into the seats in left-center. After that, manager Tony La Russa took McGwire out of the game, and the crowd booed.

In his first three at-bats, McGwire grounded into a double play and walked twice.

"He's taking the walk," Marlins manager Jim Leyland said. "He hasn't lost his patience. He hasn't expanded his strike zone. He's not panicking."

Kent Mercker (9-11) allowed two earned runs in seven innings and hit a grand slam against Jesus Sanchez (6-8). Mark Kotsay hit his ninth home run for the Marlins, who lost their seventh game in a row.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Going for the record

The race to overtake Roger Maris' 1961 home-run record

Maris' record on this date in 1961 53

Mark McGwire, St. Louis Cardinals 59

Sammy Sosa, Chicago Cubs 56

Home run record, Maris, NY Yankees 61