CLEARWATER, Fla. — Spencer Howard, for the first time this spring, stepped on a mound to pitch in a game Tuesday afternoon.

The Phillies’ top pitching prospect will likely join the starting rotation sometime in 2020, but he has been relegated in Clearwater to playing catch, logging bullpen sessions, and watching from afar. The Phillies are treading carefully with the 23-year-old right-hander who was limited to 92 1/3 innings last year by a shoulder injury. Manager Joe Girardi said last week that they want Howard “around 10 years from now, too.”

But finally, he was in a game.

“The last couple days, ever since I found out that I was going to be in a game, I was a little antsy,” Howard said after pitching the eighth inning of a 5-1 win over the Twins. “And I just wanted to get it over with and throw.”

Howard got it over with, ending his scoreless inning with a strikeout. He allowed two hits before settling in, admitting that the excitement of finally pitching caused him to overthrow early on. It was a promising inning, which Howard said allowed him to feel closer to the major leagues.

He has spent camp studying the way pitchers like Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola -- potentially his future rotation mates -- prepare for their starts.

“It’s not an accident that they’re big-leaguers,” said Howard, a second-round pick in the 2017 draft. “Their work proves it.”

Phillies pitcher Spencer Howard high-fives his teammates after pitching the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins in a spring training game at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Florida on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Phillies pitcher Spencer Howard high-fives his teammates after pitching the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins in a spring training game at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Florida on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.

If Howard’s inning allowed him to feel close, it also provided the Phillies with a taste of the pitcher they should be adding to their staff this summer.

Coming off his shoulder injury, the Phillies plan to limit his innings this year. The way they treat him now -- from slowing him in spring training to how they monitor his minor-league usage -- is geared toward having Howard available in the majors for August and September. Tuesday was a glimpse of what they are saving him for.

His fastball touches 99 mph and his curveball, changeup, and slider are all major-league-ready pitches. It’s just a matter of when he’ll get to South Philadelphia.

“You really get excited about that arm,” Girardi said. “His ability to pitch deep into games, swings-and-misses. I’ve watched his bullpens and they’ve been good and crisp. For him to be able to carry it out here his first time, that’s a positive.”

Howard could start the season in triple A after finishing last year in double-A Reading. Or he could remain in Clearwater, pitching at the Carpenter Complex in extended spring training. That plan is yet to be ironed out. Even Howard does not know where he’ll be next month. No matter where he is, the Phillies will continue to be cautious. Tuesday was a big step.

“I feel healthy. This is the best I’ve felt in spring training in three years,” Howard said. “As much as they’ll let me go, I’m ready.”

Extra bases

The Phillies are off on Wednesday before playing Thursday in Port Charlotte against the Rays. Jake Arrieta will pitch. ... Didi Gregorious picked up his first hit of spring on Tuesday, snapping an 0-for-22 slump. ... J.T. Realmuto homered. ... Zack Wheeler struck out six in four innings and said he’d be ready for opening day on March 26 if Aaron Nola can not pitch. Nola is feeling better from his flu and will throw a bullpen session on Thursday.