Three Cuts: Braves fall to Nats, settle for 4-game series split

The Braves tallied more ejections (two) than runs in a 4-1 loss to the Nationals on Sunday, a defeat that precluded Atlanta from seizing first place in the National League East.

Pitcher Ervin Santana (left -- three runs allowed, nine strikeouts vs. Washington) and Justin Upton (right -- one RBI) stood out in the Braves' road loss to the Nationals on Sunday.

Brad Mills / USA TODAY Sports

Here are three things we gleaned from the Braves' 4-1 loss to the Nationals, an emotionally charged road defeat that brought little overall clarity to the race in the National League East (series split: 2-all).

1. It's never a good thing when a team tallies more ejections than runs in a game

A pair of check swings contributed to the Braves' demise on Sunday, with Chris Johnson and Justin Upton getting tossed after striking out in the 6th and 9th innings, respectively.

In Johnson's case, his ejection occurred immediately after Upton had produced an RBI single -- bringing home the Braves' lone run -- and Nationals starter Tyler Roark had been replaced by reliever Craig Stammen.

Whether or not the fiery Johnson went all the way on the check swing ... well, that's a matter of debate. But the punchout (with the first-base umpire's help) prompted a few choice words for the umpires and soon led to his ejection from a 3-1 game.

Upton's removal came at a time when Washington was on the precipe of victory and a series split for the weekend.

Interestingly enough, Upton's ejection also occurred on a new reliever's first batter (Nationals closer Rafael Soriano) ... but it took place one pitch after Upton had been disgusted by a check-swing "strike" call -- forcing him to leave the plate for many seconds, boiling in anger.

Either way, the ejections were a sideshow distraction from the Braves collecting just four hits on Sunday ... and tallying just 10 runs in the crucial set against the Nationals.

Freddie Freeman (one run) had two hits; but he never took any cuts with a runner in scoring position.

For the day, Atlanta was just 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position.

For the month of June, the Braves currently rank 24th with on-base percentage -- at a middling .302.

1a. It's reasonable to assume Evan Gattis will draw at least two starts as a designated hitter in the upcoming Houston series

The Braves couldn't ask for a better respite in the schedule, preservation-wise, with their midweek trip to Houston -- facing an Interleague opponent and one that has a retractable-roof stadium.

As such, the coaching staff should be motivated to keep Gattis (16 homers, 39 RBI, 28 runs, .294 batting, .348 on-base percentage, .912 OPS) in the lineup for all three days ... but largely in a hitting-only role (as the DH).

That's not to say the Astros (33-44, 5th place in AL West) will be pushovers for all three days.

Jose Altuve (.336 batting, .377 OBP, 26 steals), Dexter Fowler (five homers, .383 OBP), Chris Carter (13 homers, 30 RBI), George Springer (13 homers, 38 RBI), Matt Dominguez (10 homers, 34 RBI) and rookie Jonathan Singleton (four homers in 18 games) are all 28 years old or younger.

And over the last 30 days, three Astros starters (Jarred Cosart -- 4-1, 2.76 ERA), Dallas Keuchel (3-2, 2.12 ERA, 1.06 WHIP) and Collin McHugh (2-2, 1.98 ERA, 31/13 K-BB) have been superb for a club that's undoubtedly on the rise.

Back to Gattis, whose 20-game hitting streak ended on Sunday: He'll love the dimensions at cozy Minute Maid Park -- 315 in left field and 362 in left-center.

2. Ervin Santana notched his best start of the month -- even if it meant little in the 'win' column

Sunday marked the first time since April 14 that Santana (three runs allowed, nine strikeouts, one walk) logged nine or more strikeouts; it also marked his first outing of zero or one walk since May 16.

And after the opening frame (two Washington runs), Santana displayed flashes of his dominant April self, yielding just one and four hits (including one bunt single) while striking out seven batters for Innings 2-6.

In the bigger picture, Sunday's start might have sparked a summertime resurgence for Santana, who had surrendered five or more runs four times from May 16-June 12.

3. The Braves and Nationals -- division rivals who meet 19 times a year -- won't play again until Aug. 8

In other words, Atlanta will endure 39 straight games during the heat of a pennant chase before tangling with Washington again (Aug. 8-10).

That's nearly a full quarter of the season to tinker with the starting rotation or bullpen ... or acquire another veteran bat before having to worry about a Nationals club that's probably the Vegas favorite to claim the NL East title.

Of course, the Braves (38-37) and Nationals (39-35, 1st place) will make up for that head-to-head absence in the final seven weeks, meeting nine times from Aug. 8 to Sept. 17 (with six games in Atlanta).

The "absence" time should be interesting for both teams. Over the next 47 days ...

**Atlanta's next 32 games will occur against clubs with losing records (as of June 22).

**After the All-Star break, the Braves will enjoy their longest home stand of the year, an 11-game swing against the Phillies, Marlins and Padres (July 18-28).

**The Braves have one medium-sized West Coast road trip (eight games) against the Dodgers, Padres and Mariners.

On the flip side ...

**The Nationals have six games against the first-place Milwaukee Brewers (Central division), who currently own the best record in the National League (46-30 as of June 21).

**Washington has an electic, nine-game road trip after the All-Star break -- taking on the Rockies, Reds and Marlins from July 21-30.