Rarely has a Braves starter had the luxury of a big early lead this season. Even more rare has he needed it, but that was the case Friday night for Ervin Santana against the Reds.

Justin Upton hit a three-run homer in the first inning and the Braves built a 5-0 lead through three, then hung on for a 5-4 win against Cincinnati in a series opener at Turner Field.

After the first two batters in the ninth reached base against Craig Kimbrel on a single and a walk, the Braves closer struck out Brayan Pena and Chris Heisey before Joey Votto grounded out. Third baseman Chris Johnson’s throw to first base forced Freddie Freeman to fully extend to his right to catch it, and the Reds argued that his foot came off the base.

The play was reviewed and the out call was confirmed, ending the game and giving Kimbrel his seventh save.

“All of a sudden if (Votto) is safe, I think (Roger) Bernadina scores there on that play,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of the runner who had sprinted from second base to cross home plate when Freeman was still on the ground after the catch. “But we don’t have to deal with it and they got the play right, and that’s why replay is there for those plays.”

Santana (3-0) was charged with four runs – twice his previous season total – and nine hits in 6-2/3 innings in his fourth start for the Braves, with one walk and seven strikeouts.

“I didn’t have my best stuff today, but I still competed and we got the win,” Santana said. “That’s the important thing.”

He gave up two runs in the sixth and two more runs in the seventh, with Santana’s last run scoring when left-hander Luis Avilan gave up an RBI double to the only batter he faced, Votto.

Remarkably, it was only the second time in 22 games this season that a Braves starter was charged with more than two earned runs. David Hale had Atlanta’s previous season-high of three.

The Braves began Friday with four of the National League’s top nine starters’ ERAs, and Santana’s jumped from 0.86 to 1.95.

The Braves’ 15-7 record is the second-best in the majors, and the NL East leaders can clinch their seventh series win in eight with another win Saturday or Sunday against the Reds. They improved to 9-0 in games when they score first and 13-1 when they hit at least one home run, compared to 2-6 when they don’t.

Upton’s three-run homer in the first inning gave him five homers and 11 RBIs in his past eight home games, and a .441 average in 10 home games this season. He’s hit .191 with one homer in 12 road games. For his career Upton has 85 homers in 447 home games and 56 homers in 455 road games.

“It’s always nice to jump out ahead and give your pitcher a cushion, let him get comfortable,” Upton said.

The Braves had a 5-0 lead through five innings and Santana had briefly moved into the major league ERA lead at 0.69, just ahead of teammate Aaron Harang (0.85). That was before the Reds scored two runs in the sixth after starting the inning with a Votto walk and Brandon Phillips double.

Jay Bruce singled to drive in one run and another scored when Neftali Soto grounded into a double play. The two runs in the inning equaled the total allowed by Santana in 26 previous innings. He gave up a leadoff single to Devin Mesoraco in the seventh inning, and light-hitting rookie speedster Billy Hamilton’s two-out double cut the lead to 5-3.

Avilan replaced Santana and gave up another run-scoring double by Votto.