NEW YORK (AP) _ Mark McGwire may be sitting on the beach, but baseball's television ratings still are riding the wave of enthusiasm from the record-breaking home run chase.

The 7.7 combined prime-time rating for NBC and Fox was the highest in the three years those two networks have been sharing the division playoffs.

It is a 5 percent increase from last year's 7.3 and 7 percent higher than the 7.2 from 1996. A network ratings point represents 994,000 households.

The presence of Sammy Sosa and the Chicago Cubs played a major role in the increase. NBC's rating for Saturday's Cubs-Braves game was 30 percent higher than it got for Game 3 of the Yankees-Indians last year.

Fox had a 14 percent increase for Game 2 of the Cubs series, compared with last year's Yankees series. ESPN, which showed the first game, got a 4.7 cable rating, had an 47 percent higher than the time slot last year.

ESPN, which televised seven games this year, saw its rating increase 6 percent to 3.3. A ratings point on ESPN represents about 750,000 homes.

The cable station was hurt a bit by showing its first 11 p.m. EDT playoff game. Saturday night's Houston-San Diego game got an 3.0 rating, 23 percent lower than last year's afternoon game between Baltimore and Seattle.

NBC's rating for its three games finished at 7.8, up 15 percent from last year's 6.8.

Fox's three prime-time games averaged 7.7, up 2 percent from last year's 7.6. Fox's Saturday afternoon game between Cleveland and Boston got a 6.2 overnight rating, 11 percent higher than last year's Baltimore-Seattle game. National ratings for that game won't be available until Thursday.

The increase in playoff ratings coupled with double-digit jump in the regular season bode well for baseball, which is just beginning to regain the lost ground from its 1994-95 labor dispute.

Baseball is in the third year of a $1.7 billion, five-year television deal with Fox, NBC and ESPN.