NEW YORK -- In varying degrees the pain is a constant in John Smoltz's elbow, every pitch a test of his tolerance and endurance.
That he pitches at all is testament to his character. That he hung in for six innings Sunday night is a statement of his greatness.
Smoltz went to the mound not knowing how long his elbow would last. As it turned out, just long enough to spark New York's flickering confidence.
Atlanta's right-hander took a lead into the seventh inning before Edgardo Alfonzo's three-run homer spoiled his evening, allowing the Mets to avoid a three-game sweep and reduce the Braves' division lead to four games with a 7-6 victory before 32,699 sweaty patrons at Shea Stadium.
"It had the makings of one of the best games I've ever pitched considering all I've been through, but it's a loss," Smoltz said. "(Alfonzo) was the last guy I was facing and I lost the challenge."
For the third time on the trip, the Braves let a lead slip away late. Smoltz, who will probably skip his next start and not pitch again until after the All-Star break to rest his elbow, held a 6-4 advantage when Rey Ordonez's single and a walk to Brian McRae set the stage for Alfonzo's 418-foot blast over the center field wall.
Smoltz (8-3) entered the game with a National League-best 3.03 ERA, but 10 hits and seven earned runs, his second seven-run outing in five starts, boosted his ERA to 3.49.
"I just didn't make a very good pitch," Smoltz said of the belt-high fastball to Alfonzo. "I wanted to make a better pitch away. I didn't care if he flew out to the wall."
The Braves, who left home with a four-game lead, finished 4-3 on their final trip before the break. But looking back on it, they felt a keen sense of disappointment for blowing two leads against the Expos and failing to sweep the Mets and advance their division lead to a comfortable level.
"We had a great trip, we bounced back from two tough losses in Montreal, but it would have been a better trip if we had won tonight," manager Bobby Cox said.
Atlanta's lineup produced four more home runs, including a pair by Bret Boone, upping its three-game total against the Mets to 10. But Smoltz, who left last Tuesday's start with stiffness in his elbow, failed to hang onto a pair of two-run leads.
Boone gave Smoltz some immediate support by ending his home run drought at 169 at-bats with his ninth homer, his first since May 16, in the first inning against Braves-killer Orel Hershiser. Boone, who had eight home runs in his first 143 at-bats this season, had 11 home runs at the All-Star break last year en route to a career-high 24.
Chipper Jones followed with his club-leading 17th homer, his third of the trip, the sixth time this season the Braves have hit back-to-back home runs.
New York answered with three first-inning runs, two coming on Mike Piazza's bases-loaded double, snapping their futility against Braves pitchers at 28 consecutive innings. Alfonzo's two-out RBI double in the second boosted the lead to 4-2, then Atlanta flexed its muscles in the third.
Boone, whose last multi-homer was May 16 at Wrigley Field, led with another home run, then Ryan Klesko picked up his ninth RBI of the trip with a sacrifice fly and Randall Simon hammered a 422-foot home run for two more runs. Hershiser, who entered with a 20-10 career record against the Braves, headed for the showers after plunking Eddie Perez with a curve.
What followed was some outstanding work by New York's bullpen. Five relievers combined to work 6 13 shutout innings and Armando Benitez, the newly-anointed closer, slammed the door by striking out the side in the ninth.
"We let some games slip away from us," right fielder Brian Jordan said. "Even today, you score six runs and you should win."