ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Just a few days ago, Ron Gant was saying he gets no special pleasure out of beating the Atlanta Braves.

Yeah, right.

Gant hit two long home runs against the team that abruptly dumped him two years ago because of a broken leg, leading the St. Louis Cardinals past the Braves 3-2 Saturday for a surprising 2-1 lead in the NL championship series.

``It's a great feeling. I had a lot of things happen to me in my career with Atlanta, a lot of good and a lot of bad. There's a lot of emotion going through me when I play them,'' he said.

``Yeah, it is sweet because it's against Atlanta, but if it was against the Dodgers, it would be just as sweet.''

Gant launched a two-run homer into the Cardinals bullpen in the first inning, then hit a solo shot off former teammate Tom Glavine into the shrubs in center field in sixth.

Helped by the homers, outstanding pitching from winner Donovan Osborne and the bullpen and the largest crowd ever to see a baseball game in the state of Missouri, the Cardinals were able to beat Atlanta at Busch Stadium for the first time in seven games this year.

The Cardinals also won their team-record eighth straight postseason game at home, a string that began in 1987.

The loss left the Braves in an unfamiliar position _ trailing in October. The defending World Series champions waltzed through their previous five postseason series, but fell victim to another strong pitching performance by St. Louis and Gant's home runs.

``Ronnie can get hot,'' Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. ``He can get as hot as anybody.''

Game 4 is Sunday night, with Andy Benes starting for St. Louis and Denny Neagle for Atlanta. The Braves traded for the former All-Star in late August, but he has pitched only one inning in the postseason.

Osborne, whose bizarre year included a car crash, a brief stay in jail and an odd incident in which he cut his finger on a champagne bottle during a clinching celebration, put something positive on his resume _ seven strong innings and a big-game win.

Mark Petkovsek relieved with runners on first and second and no outs in the eighth with St. Louis leading 3-1. Javy Lopez had infield single that loaded the bases and Jermaine Dye, just 2-for-22 in the postseason, lifted a sacrifice fly to sore-armed center fielder Ray Lankford.

But Petkovsek limited the damage, retiring pinch-hitter Terry Pendleton on a soft liner and striking out Jeff Blauser, leaving the No. 8 hitter in a 2-for-21 rut in the postseason.

Rick Honeycutt took over to start the ninth and threw only one pitch, getting pinch-hitter Ryan Klesko on a grounder. Dennis Eckersley then relieved and got the last two outs for a save. The 42-year-old right-hander has finished each of the Cardinals' five postseason wins, earning four saves.

It seemed fitting that Gant and Osborne were teammates in victory. They both missed the entire 1994 season because of injuries, Gant with his broken leg and Osborne with shoulder trouble.

Gant broke his right leg in a dirt-bike accident after the 1993 season, and the Braves cut him the next year in spring training. Doctors advised Atlanta that Gant probably would not be able to play all season _ a correct diagnosis _ and the team did not want to pay his non-guaranteed $5.5 million salary, particularly with Klesko and other young outfielders coming up.

Gant, one of the reasons the Braves made it to the World Series in 1991 and 1992 and reached the NL playoffs in 1993, has spent the last two years trying to get even with his former club.

With Cincinnati last year and St. Louis this season, he combined for seven home runs and 18 RBIs in regular-season games against Atlanta. But he hit just .188 in the Braves' four-game sweep of the Reds in the 1995 playoffs, managing only three singles.

Before this series, Gant insisted over and over that he was not aiming to beat the Braves, saying he'd been away from them for two years, had played for two different teams and that it was history.

The Braves got off to a fast start against Osborne. Marquis Grissom led off with a single, moved up on a groundout, took third on a wild pitch and scored on Chipper Jones' sacrifice fly.

Atlanta did little else, however, with Osborne. Not a bad comeback for the left-hander, who was involved in a car wreck this spring and later got into a spat with a Houston bar bouncer, landing him in jail for a couple of hours.

The Cardinals came back quickly. Royce Clayton led off with a single and one out later, Gant homered to left. Gant nearly passed Clayton rounding first base while he watched the ball sail.

Gant led off the sixth with a drive to dead center, embracing Brian Jordan at the plate.

Notes: The attendance was 56,769. ... The last time Atlanta trailed in the postseason was 1993, when Philadelphia won the NL playoffs 4-2. ... Gant scored his 17th run in NL championship series play, tying Pete Rose's record.