St. Louis is a nervous wreck. We are three days from the season's end, and Mark McGwire still hasn't put Sammy Sosa away.

Big Mac has 65 homers. So does Sosa. Both players have three games left, unless Sosa's Cubs enter a one-game playoff for the wild-card spot. (Have your asterisks ready, because that would count as a regular-season game.)If Sosa passes McGwire at the wire, he'll wear the crown. He'll own the most glamorous record in all of sports. And McGwire? Well, he'll have lots of unbelievable memories, our undying love and respect, a permanent place in baseball lore . . . and a footnote to Sosa's record.

"He's been so great all year long," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said Thursday night, after McGwire was held homerless by the Montreal Expos. "So, yeah, I'd be disappointed. To me, he is the home-run king."

After giving us six of the most amazing months sports fans could ever hope to enjoy, Big Mac needs one more push to finish his quest. With the tension mounting to excruciating levels, this duel is getting almost too painful to watch.

"I'm trying to use my sense, and not my heart," La Russa said. "Both guys say Mark will be the home-run king. Some way, some how."

But stressed-out St. Louisans are wondering why Sosa still lurks. Letter writers to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch are full of angst, as are callers to local radio stations.

Some espouse the Dominican Conspiracy Factor. They claim a cartel of Latin-American hurlers held a series of teleconferences to organize favorable pitching for Sosa, who admittedly has been slighted by the mass media.

(That sounds as far-fetched as alien cattle mutilations, but after watching Montreal Expos hurler Javier Vazquez start McGwire off with four pitches nowhere near the strike zone, one did have a sudden urge to subpoena his phone records.)

Others continue blaming the Bob Davidson Factor, lamenting that umpire's erasure of Big Mac's No. 66. How could he mess up history unless he was 100 percent sure of his call?

We keep torturing ourselves with that question.

Speaking of Milwaukee, we're also getting hung up on the Brewers Factor. Sure, Phil Garner's pitching staff treated Sosa to some happy-hour hospitality - allowing Sammy a staggering 12 homers, at a two-for-the-price-of-one rate - but we doubt the fix was in.

The Brewers were a bad American League team before coming to the National League, so their pitching, by definition, stinks. Sammy simply cashed in.

The sly Sosa also snuggled in behind McGwire, like a NASCAR driver riding the leader's draft. Big Mac had to work twice as hard as the seasonlong homer leader, fending off the media hoard that chronicled his every move.

McGwire should get five extra homers for having to put up with our nonsense.

Related to this Front-runner Factor is the ESPN Factor. Who wanted to give up a milestone homer - especially one hit high enough and far enough to endanger small aircraft - and have it replayed 22,000 times on cable?

On the other hand, Sosa's competitive prod has served Big Mac well - as has the sheer joy Sosa has brought to the derby. It's no coincidence that McGwire regained his groove at Wrigley Field with Sosa in the house.

Speaking of the Friendly Confines, most folks believe Sosa profited from the Stadium Factor. We're reminded of that each time one of his towering fly balls lands on the Busch Stadium warning track instead of Chicago's Waveland Avenue.

Then again, the wind can blow in at Wrigley Field, too, and its chilly springs can keep a big slugger from getting loose. Ask Sosa, who didn't join this home-run derby until mid-May.

The largest issue is all these walks McGwire gets. Those 28 intentional passes were especially ridiculous, especially compared with the zero intentional walks issued to Roger Maris during his 61-homer season.

But then again, McGwire is one of the most selective hitters in baseball. His keen eye and unnatural focus are two keys to his remarkable slugging success. The same discipline that earned him all those walks also earned him plenty of full swings at pitches in his zone.

St. Louisans prefer to cite The Cowardice Factor. Nobody has crushed the ball like our guy. Sosa is a scary hitter, too, but nobody in the modern game has intimidated hurlers like McGwire.

Just look at his eyes while he bats. Just look at his eyes when he sits in the dugout, visualizing his next 500-foot blast. Yikes! You half expect some of these pitchers to take the mound in full armor, roll the ball up toward the plate and hide behind their shield.

McGwire has given us the greatest slugging season in baseball history. Unfortunately for St. Louis, so has Sosa. Now it's time to find out if one will stand alone.

Forget all the theories, excuses and rationalizations. Each guy will get another 12 to 16 hacks at it. Pop some Tums, sip some Pepto Bismol, take a deep breath and enjoy the last of this breathtaking race . . . if you dare.