PHILADELPHIA — Phillies fans often cringe when manager Charlie Manuel signals for a reliever.

And with good reason.

Phillies relievers began Friday night with a 4.59 ERA — the worst in the National League.

But if Philadelphia is to become a serious playoff contender, the Phillies bullpen is going to have to pitch like it did Friday night.

Relievers J.C. Ramirez, Antonio Bastardo and Jonathan Papelbon preserved a 5-4 over the Atlanta Braves before 42,044 fans at Citizens Bank Park.

The Phillies (42-45) trail the Braves (49-37) by 71/2 games in the National League East. The trio allowed one hit and struck out three in 22/3 innings.

The stingy relief enabled Phillie starting pitcher Cliff Lee (four runs in 62/3 innings) to earn win No. 10. Phillies backup catcher Humberto Quintero knocked in three runs. First baseman Ryan Howard blasted a solo home run.

“We have a lot of young guys in the bullpen,” Quintero said. “We try to help them. They throw hard, and they throw breaking balls for strikes. That’s what we need. They feel comfortable now.”

Friday’s game started a key 10-game home stand for the Phillies. This is their chance to move into serious playoff contention before the All-Star break begins on July 15. In addition to the Braves, the Phillies also host another division rival in the Washington Nationals and the Chicago White Sox.

“It’s important,” Lee said of the homestand, “especially when you play the Braves and the Nationals. Those are the two teams ahead of us and you can make up ground.”

Friday’s crowd was into the game on every pitch on a steamy night. The Phillies appeared headed for a comfortable win.

Manuel elected to rest catcher Carlos Ruiz and start Quintero, who lined a two-run home run into the first row of the right-field stands to give Philadelphia a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning.

There was some dispute if the ball cleared the fence. Quintero sold it as a home run from the start. He circled his finger above his head (the home run sign) twice while running the bases. Umpires ruled it a home run on the field and sustained that decision after a video replay.

Howard’s home run made it 4-0 in the third inning. Other than the bullpen performance, it was the most promising sign for future Philadelphia success.

The home run came off left-handed Braves starting pitcher Paul Maholm. The ball traveled 423 feet into the stands just to the right of the center field bullpens.

The better Howard hits left-handers the more potent the Phillies’ offense becomes.

Much was made before the game of Howard’s struggles at the plate. The first baseman has been bothered by a sore left knee. Howard went 3-for-27 on the just completed 10-game road trip.

He sat some games against left-handed pitchers on the trip. Howard began Friday hitting .169 with two home runs against left-handed pitchers.

With that evidence, speculation began last week that the Phillies are easing the 33-year-old Howard into a platoon role, where he would play against just right-handed pitchers.

“I don’t look at him as a platoon player yet,” Manuel said of Howard before the game.

The Phillies appeared headed for a comfortable win. They led 5-0 after six innings. But Lee tired in the seventh. Braves second baseman Dan Uggla hit a three-run home run in the top of the seventh to cut the lead to 5-3. But the Phillies bullpen got the final eight outs to preserve the victory.

Ramirez came into the game in the seventh with runners on first and third and one out. He got out of the jam but allowed a run on a sacrifice fly to cut the Phillies lead to 5-4.

“He came in and threw hard and threw strikes,” Manuel said of the 24-year-old Ramirez. “He did a tremendous job.”

Bastardo got a key out when he struck out Uggla swinging to end the top of the eighth inning.

Papelbon allowed a single in the ninth but kept the Braves from scoring with the help of a nifty diving catch from right fielder John Mayberry Jr.

The Phillies have 15 more games left with the Braves, including tonight’s at 7:15 p.m.

“I’ve got a good feeling about our team right now,” Manuel said. “If we keep scoring some runs and our pitching holds up, who knows what we can do?”

Started at The Press in 1993 as an Ocean County reporter. Moved to the copy desk in 1994 until taking over as editor of At The Shore in 1995. Became deputy sports editor in 2004 and was promoted to sports editor in 2007.