Serve held.

Before taking the field last night at soggy Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies already knew that each of their chief competitors in the National League wild-card race — the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets — had won matinee games. It would be up to the Phillies, then, to either keep pace or fall further behind. They weren’t getting help. Not yesterday.

So, they pounded out 11 hits, including home runs from Cesar Hernandez, Adam Haseley, Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto. They got five more innings of staunch relief from “The Replacements” and a four-out save from Hector Neris. And they defeated the division-leading Atlanta Braves, 9-5, to stay two games behind the Cubs and Brewers and tied with the Mets.

“Obviously, we’re watching the other teams that we’re behind and teams we’re trying to keep up with,” Realmuto said. “We knew they had all won today, so it was a big game for us. We needed to go out and get a 'W', and we got it done.”

Now, how about taking a rare Friday off?

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J.T. Realmuto hits a two run, eighth-inning home run against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
J.T. Realmuto hits a two run, eighth-inning home run against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday.

In leading Phillies’ wild-card pursuit, J.T. Realmuto stating an MVP case

Let’s be clear: J.T. Realmuto won’t be the National League’s most valuable player.

Even if the season-ending fractured kneecap suffered this week by Milwaukee Brewers star Christian Yelich winds up costing him the award, there’s always Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Cody Bellinger. Or Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon. Or Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. Or even New York Mets rookie sensation Pete Alonso.

But if there was any doubt as to who is the Phillies’ MVP, well, Realmuto has put it to rest.

Realmuto made his 123rd start behind the plate last night in the Phillies’ 146th game. Everyone knows about his defense. He has caught 36 attempted base-stealers, far and away the most in the majors, and pitchers swear by his game-calling. And while the physical toll of the position tends to cause most catchers to struggle offensively late in the season, Realmuto is swinging the bat better than ever.

Consider this: With his two-run homer last night, he joined Mike Lieberthal, Benito Santiago, Darren Daulton and Stan Lopata as the only catchers in franchise history to go deep 25 times in a season. He has five homers in his last nine games. He slashed .273/.328/.438 with 10 homers in 308 at-bats before the All-Star break. Since the break, he’s slashing .289/.336/.608 with 15 homers in 204 at-bats.

“You wonder, if you really ride a catcher, if around this time they start to fade or if they begin to fatigue or if you have to give them additional days off as a result. And somehow, someway in the second half of the season, it has worked in just the opposite fashion for J.T.,” manager Gabe Kapler said.

“He’s getting stronger. His at-bats are getting better. He’s better in big situations. It just seems like we’re seeing the best version of J.T. right now.”

Realmuto said he has derived energy from being in the wild-card mix. This is the first playoff race of his career after he came up with the Miami Marlins, who didn’t have a winning record in any of his first five major-league seasons.

“Just being a part of this playoff race, that gives you some extra adrenaline that I haven’t had in the past," Realmuto said. “Kind of makes me forget I’m tired once the game starts.”

It shows. And if the Phillies should somehow sneak into the playoffs, Realmuto is playing so well that he might merit MVP consideration that goes beyond merely a few down-ballot votes.

“He has for us,” Kapler said. “I don’t think there’s a Phillies player, staff member, front-office member or fan who wouldn’t say the same thing.”

The rundown

When the Phillies win lately, it’s because they hit homers and get solid relief pitching. But as Matt Breen asked Kapler last night, is that sustainable for 16 more games?

So, what’s Scott Kingery’s best position? Bob Brookover posed that question yesterday to Kapler, who answered it directly by saying “probably second base.” Brooky wondered if the Phillies would be better off committing to one position for their Swiss Army knife next season.

For the second time in less than a week, it took a loooooooong time for Hector Neris to come in from the bullpen last night. Braves manager Brian Snitker, for one, believes the league needs to step in.

The Phillies got answers about what’s causing the soreness in Corey Dickerson’s left foot. It’s a bruised navicular bone, and his ability to play will be determined by his pain tolerance.

Important dates

Today: A rare Friday off for the Phillies.

Tomorrow: Aaron Nola starts series opener vs. Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, 7:05 p.m.

Sunday: Jason Vargas vs. Boston right-hander Rick Porcello, 1:05 p.m.

Monday: Last day off of the regular season.

Tuesday: Phillies open an 11-game, 10-day road trip in Atlanta, 7:20 p.m.

Third baseman Maikel Franco has taken a seat for many of the Phillies' games during the second half of the season.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Third baseman Maikel Franco has taken a seat for many of the Phillies' games during the second half of the season.

Stat of the day

Quick, can you identify these players strictly by their statistics since June 24?

Player A: .298 average, .347 on-base percentage, .504 slugging percentage, 6 doubles, 7 homers, 11 walks, 24 strikeouts in 131 at-bats.

Player B: .230 average, .298 on-base percentage, .423 slugging percentage, 17 doubles, 10 homers, 23 walks, 94 strikeouts in 269 at-bats.

What if we told you that Player A is Maikel Franco and Player B is Scott Kingery?

Now, Kingery is the Phillies’ most improved hitter since last season, and his versatility and defense at six positions make him a big-time asset. Just something to think about, though, as the Phillies prepare to move on from Franco at third base next season.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Question: Since the hiring of Charlie Manuel, it seems like many of the regulars and the team’s hitting in general have improved. Is this true and what are those improvements? Who has benefited the most? What are [Rhys] Hoskins stats since exiting his slump?

— Steve B., via email

Answer: Hi, Steve. Thanks for the question.

OK, going strictly by the numbers, the Phillies entered last night batting .260 with .330 and .479 on-base and slugging percentages, respectively, and averaging 5.6 runs in 26 games with Manuel as the hitting coach.

In 118 games this season with John Mallee overseeing the hitters, they batted .245 with .322 and .417 on-base and slugging percentages and an average of 4.7 runs.

So, yes, the offense has improved.

It’s far too simple, of course, to point to just Manuel vs. Mallee. Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto have been the Phillies’ hottest hitters since the change, and it’s not as if either of them suddenly learned to hit over the last month. There’s no question that Manuel’s style has resonated with many players. But it’s also common to get at least a short-term boost after a coaching change.

As for Hoskins, I wouldn’t say he’s out of his slump. In 11 games this month, also entering last night, he was batting .209/.271/.442 with two homers in 43 at-bats. He’s had a really tough second half, batting .192 and slugging .384 with seven homers.