- - Saturday, March 3, 2018

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. – Major League Baseball Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre visited with the Washington Nationals Saturday morning to talk about the upcoming rule changes – whatever they may be – to increase the pace of play of the game.

Spring training is the time to talk about this, because no one cares about pace of play here. The crowd treats it like a few more minutes at the beach, although Saturday’s three-hour 8-1 Nationals win over the Houston Astros sent some of them home early, of all days, when Torre comes to talk about pace of play.

In spring training games, managers generally aren’t getting their Fitbit steps by walking back and forth between the mound and dugout.

Players play a handful of innings, and when you see stars like Bryce Harper, who was the designated hitter in his return to the lineup after his ingrown toenail surgery, or a pitching matchup like Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander facing each other Saturday, you just get glimpses of them – Strasburg for two innings, 29 pitches and 17 strikes (first outing of the spring – “I felt really strong”), Verlander for three innings, 36 pitches, 26 strikes.

After that, it’s Tommy Milone and Ismael Guillon and Anthony Gose and Cionel Perez and cast of thousands taking the mound.

And no one seems to care, because everybody is happy when it’s 83 degrees without a cloud in the sky. So sure, let’s talk about changing a game that treats change like you’re tinkering with the Bill of Rights.

“It was good,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said about proposed limits on mound visits during a game. “They are still working on what the penalty is going to be. And there are different variations that we still didn’t know about. I think everything is still a work in progress right now in spring training to work out the bugs, but they think it is going to go well. I think it is going to go well.”

We’ve seen how great instant replay has worked in regular season baseball.

What could go wrong?

“We’ve had a great dialogue with all the umpires so far in the games, and they’ve been willing to communicate with us and tell us what would be considered a trip and what’s not a trip,” Martinez said. “It’s been good.”

Hear that? Dialogue with the umpires. Hand me another beer, please, while I look at the ocean and ponder how challenging it will be to turn around this massive battleship we call baseball.

The Nationals played their eighth exhibition game of 2018 Saturday, this one as the visiting team at home. You see, they share the ballpark with the World Champion Astros. They play the Astros seven times this spring. Sometimes the Nationals are the home team, sometimes the Astros.

It didn’t seem to matter Saturday afternoon who was home or away to the crowd at Fit Team Ballpark of the Palm Beaches enjoying the scene. Yes, if you make the trip to down to West Palm Beach, the naming rights of the two-year-old ballpark have been sold to local health and wellness company called Fit Team.

I suspect not as many Nats fans make the trip down here as did when the team trained at Space Coast Stadium in Viera.

The move to this new facility was better for the team and the players, from a baseball perspective – a brand new, state-of-the-art facility, but, more importantly, in close proximity to four other teams – the Astros, obviously, the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins a few minutes away in Jupiter and the New York Mets less than an hour away in Port. St. Lucie. It cuts down on the long bus trips and time wasted traveling.

But for Nats fans? Not a better deal.

If you are driving from Washington, it is more than two hours further away, and the hotels costs are dramatically higher here than in the Viera-Cocoa Beach area. And I’ve heard the same thing about Houston fans, too, who preferred the lower cost Kissimmee area outside of Orlando where Houston used to train, near Disney World and all the family attractions.

But if the point is to prepare for the regular baseball season, this new complex helps in that goal.

Oh, by the way, I have a simple plan for speeding up the pace of the game – eliminate the foul ball third strike. You foul off the third strike, you’re out. It has the same value as foul balls on the first and second strike. There’s 20 minutes off every game.

I bounced this idea off Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer, who has been involved with the players union in talks with Major League Baseball about changes to speed up the pace of play.

He wasn’t a fan. “No, that will change the game,” he told me.

Sure, this is going to be easy — as easy as a Saturday afternoon in the sun in March in West Palm Beach.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network

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