CLEARWATER, Fla. — Get ready to rumble.

After the banality of practice for nearly two weeks, the Phillies opened their slate of spring-training games with an 8-8 tie against the Tigers on Saturday and a 4-3 win over the Pirates on Sunday. The Grapefruit League will get into full swing this week, and so too will a robust competition for a handful of spots on the opening-day roster.

Keep an eye on the No. 5 starter derby (Nick Pivetta vs. Vince Velasquez vs. Ranger Suarez), as well as wide-open battles for two bench spots and two, maybe three seats in the bullpen. For some players in camp, results will start mattering soon, as they look to impress manager Joe Girardi and the coaches.

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— Scott Lauber (extrainnings@inquirer.com)

‘Big Piece’ lends a hand as guest instructor

Joe Girardi had a request. His young son wanted Ryan Howard’s autograph.

This was 2006, Howard’s 58-homer MVP season, and Girardi was managing the Marlins. The Phillies were in Miami for a late-season series, so before one of the games, Girardi asked a clubhouse attendant to deliver a ball for Howard to sign.

Sure thing, Howard said. But he needed a favor in return.

“It was to the point where I would walk up to the plate and I’d look over at Joe and he’d be like this,” Howard recalled Sunday, putting four fingers in the air to indicate an intentional walk. “So, when he sent the ball over, I was like, ‘Send him this, bro,’ and I wrote, ‘I’ll sign it if you stop walking me.’ ”

Girardi’s retort: a baseball with the message “I’ll stop walking you if you stop hitting home runs against us.”

Howard laughed at the retelling. Girardi first relayed the story in October at his news conference after being hired to manage the Phillies. Shortly thereafter, he asked around to find out if Howard would want to come to spring training as a guest instructor.

“I think it’s cool,” said Howard, who arrived over the weekend. “It’s fun to be back. It’s fun to be around the game and be around the guys on the field and just kind of watch these guys do what they’re doing, just give them some words of wisdom here and there.”

Just don’t mistake Howard’s three-day cameo in camp for an interest in coaching. He isn’t even working for ESPN this year after calling some games last season. The “Big Piece” is at peace with being a full-time dad to his three daughters and making the occasional trip from his Atlanta home to watch his son, Darien, play baseball at Wallace Community College in Dothan, Ala.

“Coaching aspirations isn’t anything for me now — and probably not anything any time soon just from the standpoint that I’ve got three little girls at home," Howard said. “But who knows? Maybe somewhere down the road and once they grow up and move out of the house ... maybe.”

Howard, 40, had a 13-year major-league career, entirely with the Phillies. He ranks second to Mike Schmidt in franchise history with 382 home runs, 58 of which were hit in 2006. Of those, nine came against the Marlins. It’s no wonder Girardi intentionally walked him 11 times.

But Howard made 5-year-old Dante Girardi’s day when he finally signed that baseball.

“I was going to give it to him, but I just wanted to kind of give Joe some mess about it first,” Howard said. “It was a fun little banter. I remember that. It was very cool.”

The rundown

For nearly 40 years, the Phillies’ athletic training staff has been remarkably stable. It was notable, then, that they didn’t renew head trainer Scott Sheridan’s contract after last season and made other changes to their protocol and personnel.

So, as you might have heard, the Phanatic got a makeover. We have the details.

Aaron Nola was very good last season, but he was Cy Young-worthy in 2018. One difference, as he explained to Bob Brookover: command of his changeup.

In Jean Segura’s trial by fire at third base, it will be his reaction to the plays that he doesn’t make as much as the ones that he does that will determine if he can handle the new position.

Nick Williams was biding his time during defensive drills the other day when he thought about something that nearly blew his mind.

With Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn, the Phillies hope to be better in center field this season, as Brooky writes.

Now that J.T. Realmuto has lost his arbitration hearing, talks on a contract extension may begin. After chatting with his agent over the weekend, I believe one factor will rise above all others in negotiations.

If Nick Pivetta is able to change his standing within the Phillies’ pitching ranks, an improved changeup will be the reason.

Important dates

Today: Vince Velasquez faces Orioles at Spectrum Field, 1:05 p.m.

Tomorrow: Bryce Harper makes his spring debut vs. Toronto, 1:05 p.m.

March 23: Spring-training finale vs. Rays in Clearwater, 1:05 p.m.

March 26: Opening day vs. Miami at Marlins Park, 4:10 p.m.

April 2: Home opener at Citizens Bank Park vs. Brewers, 3:05 p.m.

Stat of the day

Everything that Aaron Nola does for the rest of his career will be compared to his breakthrough 2018 season, when he posted a 2.37 ERA in 212 1/3 innings and finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

So, when he was asked Sunday to explain why he wasn’t as effective last season, he had an answer all cued up.

“I didn’t get ahead [in the count],” Nola said.

It’s true. According to Fangraphs, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4% of the time in 2018, second in the majors behind only St. Louis’ Miles Mikolas (70.8%). Last season, Nola threw a first-pitch strike only 62.3% of the time, 37th in the majors. Washington’s Max Scherzer led the league at 70.3%.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Answer: Hey, Jonathan. Thanks for the question. So, you want a Phillies player whom you can fall in love with for the next decade? That’s a long time, man. Not sure how old you are, but when I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, it wasn’t uncommon for a guy to stay with one team for 10-plus years. Nowadays, not so much. Rare is the player who has the staying power of Chase Utley and your guy, Jimmy Rollins.

Anyway, I’d say that Scott Kingery and Rhys Hoskins are decent bets to be here for a while. And if top prospect Alec Bohm is the real deal, the Phillies will have roughly six years of control over him from the time that he makes his major-league debut.

I know you asked about infielders, but Bryce Harper is the safest bet. He isn’t going anywhere, and by the time his contract expires in 2031, my 3 1/2-year-old son will almost be driving. Sheesh.