ATLANTA -- By the end of a long Thursday afternoon, with shadows starting to creep onto the grass and John Rocker standing triumphant on the mound, the last sound the New York Mets heard as they headed up the tunnel was a mocking chant.
"Sweep. Sweep. Sweep."
Even before Chipper Jones single-handedly swept them out of town, keying the Braves' 6-3 victory with his fourth homer of the series, the Mets knew they were in trouble. Now, with nine games remaining and four back, a wild-card entry into the postseason looks more realistic than overtaking the Braves.
"We certainly picked a great time to pick up our game," said Jones, whose four home runs produced seven RBI. "After we went up 4-2, the guys started to sense it and wanted to go out and finish it."
A sun-splashed sellout crowd of 47,520 fans who came out to Turner Field hoping to see the Braves complete another September sweep of the Mets returned home in a state of high excitement.
Three straight wins over the Mets gives the Braves their largest National League East lead since Sept. 10 and reduced their magic number to six. Any combination of Braves wins and Mets' losses totaling six, and the Braves will win an eighth straight division championship.
The Braves, winners of four straight and four wins shy of becoming the fourth team in major league history to post 100 wins in three consecutive seasons, have played .720 ball (36-14) since July 25.
"I want to get to the playoffs," said Greg Maddux, who improved his record to 19-8 by allowing two earned runs in seven innings. "The season starts in the postseason, at least it does around here."
Every Atlanta starter except Eddie Perez reached base at least once, with Bret Boone, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones doing so three times each. Andruw Jones, elevated to cleanup, responded with three hits and an RBI. Gerald Williams and Boone each had a single and double and scored twice.
Chipper Jones, who had a series that most players only see in their dreams, turned the game around with a three-run homer (No. 45) off Al Leiter in the fifth. It was his fourth bomb of the series, each one more damaging (solo, solo, two-run and three-run) to a Mets club that may not throw him a strike when the two teams reconvene in New York next week.
"It's great to have the sense that you can do no wrong at the plate," said Jones, who has the most home runs by a Brave since Hank Aaron hit 47 in 1971. "I feel when I'm at the plate and I'm on, I have the ability to dominate a game. I don't mean to sound brash, that's just having confidence that no matter what pitch they throw, I'm going to hit it hard.
"It's an awesome feeling to have that confidence when you walk up to the plate."
Poor Leiter. With the weight of the Mets' hopes resting on his shoulders, he was touched for a run in the first on Andruw Jones' RBI single, then teetered into the fifth gamely holding onto a 2-1 lead like a climber grasping a crumbling cliff face. The avalanche that followed swept him out of the game. Five straight hits and John Olerud's throwing error produced four runs, leaving Leiter to wonder if Jones would have taken him deep if he'd rolled the ball to the plate.
"My confidence against the guy has always been high," he said. "I don't know if it was a strike he hit out and if it wasn't, that just shows you how hot he is."
If he got any hotter, Jones could warm a small country. He gave his MVP candidacy a considerable boost in front of New York's sporting press, reaching base seven times and scoring five of Atlanta's 13 runs in the series.
"Right now, he's in a Michael Jordan zone," said Brian Jordan, who continued to break out of a September swoon with a pair of hits. "Whatever they throw up there, he's crushing. This is a great time for him to come up big."
While Jones powered the Braves, their pitchers throttled the Mets, limiting them to six runs and a .167 batting average with runners in scoring position. Atlanta's bullpen was perfect, pitching six shutout innings, while New York's relief corps staggered home with a 4.50 ERA in the three games.
Hoping to convince themselves they're a playoff-bound team, the Mets were completely undressed by a Braves club that took advantage of every mistake and rode the coattails of an MVP during the biggest series of the season.
"(The Braves) handed it to us this series," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said. "They did the job they had to do."
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