ST. LOUIS -- Nothing has come easy for the Atlanta Braves during the streak.
Certainly not the hits (a team batting average of .235) and not the wins. Most have been of a grinding sort that leave players and fans equally exhausted.
It was more of the same Sunday night as the Braves claimed a third straight series sweep and boosted their win streak to 10 games, their best since a 13-game ride in July 1992. This time it took Chipper Jones' 34th home run in the 12th inning to deliver a 4-3 victory over the Cardinals before a Busch Stadium crowd of 45,959 fans, upping their division lead to 3 12 games over the Mets.
"It's a good feeling anytime you can come through with a big hit in a big situation," said Jones, who was 3-for-14 with two RBI in the series. "I struggled this whole series swinging the bat and that was the first at-bat I felt good at the plate."
With 30 games remaining, the Braves have their largest lead since July 18 and the three-game sweep was their first at Busch since July 1996.
While scoring only nine runs in the three games, the Braves held Mark McGwire to one single in 13 at-bats with six strikeouts. It wasn't McGwire, but rookie Joe McEwing who hit the Cardinals' only home run of the series, sending John Smoltz's pitch into the left field stands to tie the game in the seventh.
"Stupid pitch," said Smoltz, who has yielded three earned runs or less in six straight starts. "Just bad pitch selection on my part. I've been in this game too long to get beat on that pitch."
Smoltz went eight and allowed six hits and three runs, turning over a 3-3 game to a bullpen that's been almost perfect during the streak. Russ Springer worked the ninth, Mike Remlinger pushed his shutout streak to 17 13 innings with a scoreless 10th, then Kevin McGlinchy made his first appearance since Aug. 19 and escaped a jam in the 11th.
McGlinchy (7-3) showed the effects of the long layoff by giving up a leadoff double to David Howard. Following Adam Kennedy's bunt and a walk to McEwing, the Braves sniffed out a suicide squeeze play with pitcher Lance Painter at the plate and caught Howard coming down the line by pitching out.
"It's just a lucky guess, that's all it was," said manager Bobby Cox, who was ejected for the ninth time this season in the eighth inning.
It took the Braves a couple of innings to figure out Cardinals starter Rick Ankiel, who was making his second major league start. Andruw Jones led the third with his second hit of the series and two outs later Eddie Perez drew a walk, bringing the slumping Walt Weiss to the plate.
Weiss, making his first start at shortstop since Aug. 14, lashed a double into the left field corner, his first extra-base hit this month, scoring Jones and a chugging Perez.
Third base coach Ned Yost was aggressive, sending Perez on a daring dash for home, testing shortstop Edgar Renteria's arm. His throw was to the left of home plate, giving Perez room to slide around catcher Alberto Castillo's tag and score on a close play.
No sooner did Smoltz own a lead, then he gave it away in the bottom of the fourth. Mark McGwire and Ray Lankford walked and Fernando Tatis' single loaded the bases for Castillo, who drove in a run with a looping hit that ended Atlanta's shutout streak at 22 innings. Adam Kennedy followed with a sacrifice fly to tie the game, the fifth RBI of his major league career.
The Braves grabbed another lead on Jose Hernandez's two-out RBI single in the seventh, but McEwing's ninth homer tied it again in the bottom of the inning.
All that did was set the stage for a player who loves the spotlight. Facing reliever Juan Acevedo (5-6) in the 12th, Chipper Jones crushed a 2-2 pitch into the center field seats, matching his career-best home run total with a month remaining.
"We were scoreboard watching and saw what happened in the Mets' game," Jones said. "That allows you to go out and play free and easy and know that whatever happens you don't lose any ground. It pumped me up."