ATLANTA -- As the Braves slumbered through the latter part of May and first half of June, Ervin Santana provided reason to wonder if he would be a $14.1 million bust. But like the defending National League East champs, Santana has regained his moxie over the past couple weeks.
After the Braves extended their winning streak to eight games with Friday night's 5-2 victory over the D-backs, Santana proved he had regained that smile he had lost a few weeks ago. The veteran pitcher had just pitched into the eighth inning for the first time since his April 9 season debut and his offensive mates had once again proven they can provide sufficient support without power.
"We're not scoring from the power like we normally do, but we're just showing you guys we can do all sorts of things," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "It's definitely good to see. We're getting a lot of hits, a lot of key hits here and there and it was just enough for [Santana] tonight."
Freeman notched the first of his two RBI singles in the two-run first inning and added another to provide an insurance run in the seventh inning. In between, the suddenly efficient Atlanta offense manufactured three other runs without hitting a ball over the outfield wall. The Braves are now 17-26 when they do not homer and six of those wins have been notched within their past seven games.
Surprisingly, this encouraging offensive trend has transpired since Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez made the baffling decision to move B.J. Upton to the leadoff spot. Upton has recorded a hit in each of the games he has played since moving to the top of the lineup. He matched a career-high 10-game hitting streak with a single to begin the bottom of the first and then notched one of the four singles D-backs starter Josh Collmenter surrendered in the two-run second inning.
"Everybody is pitching in and everybody is getting timely hits," B.J. Upton said. "We're getting runners on base and capitalizing on it."
With their 10th win in their past 11 games, the Braves extended their lead to 1 1/2 games in the National League East race. They have also moved 10 games above .500 for the first time since they began this season with a 17-7 record that was aided by Santana's strong April.
Fresh off of consecutive sweeps of the Phillies and Mets, the Braves began this three-game set by tallying a pair of runs in each of the first two innings. The early advantage proved to be more than enough for Santana, who allowed two runs and six hits in 7 1/3 innings. This marked the second time in eight starts that he completed at least seven innings. The other occurrence, on June 7, happened to come at the expense of this same Arizona offense.
"He was spotting," former Brave Martin Prado said. "I saw him pretty good, but I feel like he was commanding his fastball -- he's that kind of guy -- and using his secondary pitches to get you to reach and chase pitches, so I felt like we didn't have a big opportunity to score."
Santana scattered four singles through the first three innings and might have escaped that stretch unscathed had he not uncorked a wild pitch and then whiffed on Gerald Laird's flip back to the plate. Had he caught the flip cleanly, he likely would have tagged Prado before he slid across the plate.
The Braves right-hander found a groove in the fourth inning and retired 11 straight before allowing singles to two of the three batters he faced in the eighth inning. Luis Avilan inherited runners at the corners and induced a David Peralta grounder that would have resulted in an inning-ending double play had Andrelton Simmons not made a low throw back to Freeman at first base.
"Ervin was really, really good," Gonzalez said. "He was mixing his pitches well, especially to a left-handed dominant lineup. I thought he did a nice job mixing his breaking pitch. It's a shame he gives up two runs, one on a wild pitch and another [double play throw] in the dirt."
After producing a 1.99 ERA through his first six starts, Santana posted a 6.44 ERA in the six starts that followed. But he has allowed three earned runs or less and completed at least six innings in each of his past four starts, making him look more like the guy the Braves envisioned when they gave him a one-year, $14.1 million deal in March.
"Everything is getting back to my way again," Santana said. "I just have to keep my mind positive and keep working down in the zone."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.