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St. Louis Cardinals sweep Atlanta Braves; Daniel Winkler fractures right elbow

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Braves reliever Daniel Winkler went down with a fractured elbow, while the Braves blew three different leads.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves held the lead three separate times, but the St. Louis Cardinals finished off the sweep with a 12-6 victory on Sunday afternoon at Turner Field.

Atlanta (0-5) has led in the seventh inning or later in four of its first five contests, and has blown all of them. The Braves are off to their worst start since 1988, when they lost the first ten games of the season.

Jim Johnson retired the first two batters he faced in the eighth inning, but gave up a single, a hit by pitch, and two more singles, as the Cardinals turned a one-run deficit into one-run lead at 7-6.

Johnson entered the game in the seventh in relief of Daniel Winkler, who exited the game after fracrturing his right elbow, and went down in pain following a pitch to Randal Grichuk. There is no current timetable for Winkler's return, but he has been outstanding in his return from Tommy John surgery in 2014, allowing no runs in three appearances to go along with a great spring training.

"I felt something in my elbow and I didn't really think much of it," Winkler said of the pitch before. "But then, just got the cutter away and all the sudden, I heard a crack, and I knew exactly what it was right when it happened. It didn't feel good.

"I know I can compete up here. I know I can be up here. That's probably the most frustrating thing about it. I just can't get healthy."

That big eighth inning could have been avoided if not for another episode of rough defense, as miscommunication in the outfield led to a ball falling behind short.

"Those are the things that we're kind of working through right now," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told reporters following the game. "Maybe it's a case where (centerfielder) Drew (Stubbs) hasn't played with us but a few games in spring training. We make that play there and the inning's over, and you've got a one-run lead heading into the ninth inning. We're not making those plays."

He added, "It's a shame that one missed play cost us a chance to shake hands."

The Braves threatened in the bottom half of the eighth, but pinch hitter Jeff Francoeur struck out to end the inning. The Cardinals added five in the ninth off Jose Ramirez, who may be optioned to make room for fifth starter Jhoulys Chacin on Tuesday.

Nick Markakis was the star offensively for the Braves, notching three doubles -- and would have had four if not for an outstanding catch by Stephen Piscotty -- and driving in a pair of runs. One of those runners was Gordon Beckham, who scored to give Atlanta a 6-5 lead in the sixth.

"He's swinging the bat good," Gonzalez said. "It's nice to see him get hot again."

Three pitches into the bottom of the first, the Braves had a 1-0 lead. Erick Aybar blooped a single to left-center, followed by Markakis' double over the centerfielder's head to plate him. Aybar hit in the leadoff hole for the second consecutive game and was 2-for-6.

The Braves' second lead of the day came on a Hector Olivera sacrifice fly an inning earlier, and the Cuban finished the day 2-for-4 and scored a pair of runs.

Chris Withrow gave that lead back in the top of the sixth. It potentially could have been a lot worse, as Winkler inherited a bases-loaded, two-out mess and struck out Jeremy Hazelbaker to end the frame. Withrow was recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett prior to the game and made his first big league appearance since May 20, 2014, when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

With another rough day for the bullpen, Braves relievers have now allowed 17 earned runs in the first five games of the season. The pitchers as a whole walked nine batters.

Williams Perez hurled 4.2 innings in his first start of the season, allowing four runs on three hits, three walks, and four strikeouts. He was allowed to hit for himself and return to the mound in the fifth after Drew Stubbs sent a line drive laser over the center field wall on a full-count pitch from Cards starter Adam Wainwright to drive in three and tie the game at 4-4.

Trouble came quickly for Perez in the third, as leadoff walks almost always seem to bring about. Greg Garcia took four straight out of the zone to begin the frame. He later scored on a grounder deep in the hole at shortstop that Aybar had no play on.

"You want him to a little further than 4 2/3 innings. We need to get him to go a little deeper. We'll get it worked out," Gonzalez said.

Brandon Moss provided the gut punch, with a three-run bomb to center field later in the inning, to give the Redbirds a 4-1 lead.

Atlanta had more success than usual against Wainwright, as he posted a line of five innings, six hits, five runs, five walks, and a pair of punch outs.

"It's been a tough first week," first baseman Freddie Freeman said, who went 0-for-3 with a pair of walks on the day. "You just got to try to take as many positives as you can. We scored some runs finally today and we've been playing pretty decent baseball the first five games."

The Braves hit the road for a series against the Washington Nationals, beginning with a 7:05 p.m. ET tilt featuring Bud Norris and Max Scherzer, who Atlanta has already seen on opening day. FOX Sports South will televise the game.