With the Nationals' victory over the Giants, the Braves dropped to seven games behind Washington in the National League East and remained one game behind San Francisco for the second NL Wild Card spot.
In a scoreless pitching duel, Santana blinked first. He yielded a leadoff double to Leake in the sixth and the next batter, Billy Hamilton, dropped a sacrifice bunt to move Leake to third. Santana struck out the following hitter, Skip Schumaker, but with a full count on Brandon Phillips, he gave up an RBI single to left-center that put Cincinnati up, 1-0.
"I tried to locate it a little bit down and away," Santana said of the 95 mph four-seam fastball he threw to Phillips. "But it ran back toward the middle. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes not."
As luck would have it on this night, that mistake would result in a loss for Santana despite his stellar performance; he walked one and struck out seven overall. The loss was Santana's first since the All-Star break. He is 6-1 with a 2.75 ERA in eight second-half starts after going 7-6 with a 4.01 ERA in the first half.
"In a situation like that, anything can happen. [Leake] was dealing and I was dealing," Santana said. "It was one shot, and that was it."
The Braves had their best shot in the seventh, when Andrelton Simmons opened the frame with a leadoff double past the diving Todd Frazier at third base and down the left-field line.
But Atlanta couldn't bring Simmons around to tie the game. The next two batters were the Braves' hottest as of late, but both Freddie Freeman and Upton struck out swinging. Following back-to-back walks that chased Leake from the game, reliever Jumbo Diaz got Tommy La Stella to hit a sharp one-hopper to short, which Zack Cozart gloved and tossed to second for a forceout to end the threat.
"We didn't support Ervin very much, but he went out and gave us seven strong innings, and you can't ask for much more than that," said Upton, who had his 13-game hitting streak snapped after he went 0-for-4.
"It's a shame that we couldn't get [Santana] the win, because he's pitched terrific," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "You figure we could scratch one run across and not have him get the loss, but their back end of the bullpen is pretty good, with [Jonathan] Broxton and, of course, [Aroldis] Chapman."
The Braves managed to get a baserunner to second against Broxton in the eighth on a two-out double by Emilio Bonifacio, but the right-hander fanned Simmons to end the inning.
In the ninth, Chapman overpowered the middle of Atlanta's lineup, striking out Freeman, Upton and Chris Johnson en route to his 27th save.
"When you get the ball to Chapman [it's tough], and that's their goal: to get the ball to the back end of their bullpen, just like it is for us," Upton said. "The roles could have been reversed if we had scored a run. That's the name of the game, to get the ball to your shutdown guy."
The roles might have been reversed had the Braves been able to continue the run of offensive production they enjoyed over the seven games prior to Friday's. Atlanta won six of those, batting .277 and averaging 6.1 runs per contest over that span. But in the last two games, the Braves scored three runs combined, batted .189 and went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
On Saturday, it meant a hard-luck loss for Santana. But in the defeat, his performance and the trend it continued for the Braves' starting rotation was perhaps the only silver lining. Over the last nine games, Atlanta starters are 6-1 with a 2.39 ERA.
"We just have to keep it up," Santana said of the rotation. "We have a good team. We just have to keep it up."