FORT MYERS, Fla. – Key West, Fla., class of 2016 standout Gregory Veliz rose to No. 4 in his class’s national prospect rankings thanks in large part to a right arm that delivers a fastball from the pitcher’s mound to home plate at 95 miles-per-hour.
Truth be told, Veliz is also a special talent at shortstop – he’s thrown across the infield at 91 mph – and knows a thing or two about hitting. The Pembroke Pines-based Elite Squad Prime, for which Veliz is playing at this week’s 16u Perfect Game BCS Finals, is taking raking to another level, and Veliz is drinking the Kool-Aid.
“They always say hitting is contagious, and with this team and with this caliber of players, it’s just crazy,” he said early Tuesday afternoon at the JetBlue Park Player Development Complex. “We hit the ball great and we always pick each other up and do what’s best for the team.”
With a team batting average of .431 and a runs-per-game average of nearly 10 after nine games at the 16u PG BCS Finals, the fourth-seeded Elite Squad Prime won their second-round and quarterfinal-round playoff games on Tuesday to advance at the PG national championship event.
They skated into the quarterfinals with a 9-1 win over No. 29 Team Elite Black in the playoffs’ first round and a 10-1 victory over No. 13 OTC Baseball in the second round; they bounced the No. 5-seeded 643 DP Cougars Sterling, 8-1, in the quarterfinals.
The Elite Squad Prime (9-0) will play No. 9-seed MBA Pride Elite (8-1) out of Daytona Beach, Fla., in one of Wednesday morning’s semifinal games at the JetBlue Park Complex. The other semifinal pits No. 23 Florida Burn Pennant (8-1) from Sarasota against No. 3 Team Elite Prime (9-0) out of Winder, Ga.
Those games are scheduled to be played simultaneously beginning at 8 a.m. on two JetBlue backfields; the championship game is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at JetBlue Park.
The playoffs’ first round, played late Monday, saw three of the top-10 seeds get eliminated, including No. 1 overall seed Team Elite Roadrunners which fell to the No. 32 Austin Banditos, 7-3; the No. 26 Florida Surge beat the No. 7 East Cobb Braves, 5-2, and the No. 26 Florida Burn Pennant beat No. 10 SWFL, 9-3.
The fireworks have been provided early and often by the Elite Squad Prime, which boasts a roster with five players from the class of 2016 ranked 188th nationally or higher and four prospects committed to NCAA Division I colleges.
Three of those commitments are to the University of Miami and come from Veliz, No. 2-ranked right-hander/outfielder Anthony Molina and No. 119-ranked shortstop/third baseman Colton Welker.
“It’s great playing with a bunch of kids of this (high) caliber and playing against the best kids in the country,” said Welker, who is 9-for-19 (.474) with a pair of doubles, four RBI and eight runs scored in nine games. “Just coming out here, playing hard, playing aggressive (and) not being scared – whoever comes at us we’re not going to back down, which is great.”
The guy swinging the hottest bat for the ES Prime is corner-infielder Jack Khawly who is neither highly ranked nor committed to a college. No matter, it seems, as Khawly is 9-for-16 (.562) with six doubles, eight RBI, seven runs and a .938 slugging percentage.
“This is a great thing; everything is fun about playing with this team,” he said. “We try to stay aggressive with everything and we try to stay excited in the dugout. This has been fun and everything has been exciting; we came in here to win it all.”
Veliz, who is scheduled to pitch today, most likely in the semifinal game, is hitting at a torrid .455 pace (10-for-22) – he has hit for the cycle with a double, two triples and a home run – with team highs of 11 RBI and 10 runs and a .818 slugging percentage.
“It’s been fun, and it’s really been a lot of fun winning,” he said. “Just coming out and beating teams and hitting the ball well, it’s been really good. Ever since our first tournament when you try to find chemistry (with teammates), we were able to find it right away. Now with this being our fourth tournament, the chemistry is really good.”
Richie Palmer is the Elite Squad (formerly South Florida Elite Squad) founder, owner, president, general manager and head coach. In a few short years he has built the organization into one of the country’s best and has a great track record at Perfect Game tournaments dating back to 2009.
The South Florida Elite Squad won the championship at the 2009 15u PG BCS Finals and was second at the 16u PG BCS Finals in 2010. The Elite Squad also won championships at the 2011 PG WWBA 16u National Championship and the 2012 17u Perfect Game World Series; they were second at the 2013 16u Perfect Game World Series and the 2013 17u Perfect Game World Series. Those are all PG national championship-level tournaments
Palmer often singles out the group that won both the 2011 PG WWBA 16u National Championship and the 2012 17u PG World Series as one of his best; he dares to cast this group in the same light.
“I know I say this every year, but this really does have a chance to be one of the most talented teams that I’ve coached,” he said Tuesday. “One thing that (former) team was, they were very resilient and they were very close; they got close quick, they knew each other, they had played with or against each other for years. I’m kind of seeing the same thing with these guys.”
He may never have seen this kind of offensive production before, however. One of the coaches on Palmer’s staff is Alan Kunkel, who Palmer describes as a very offensive-minded coach while he tends to focus on pitching and defense.
“He’s kind of put it in my head, ‘Hey, let the players swing. You’ve got some of the best players in the country, let them play,’” Palmer said. “I have a lot of unselfish guys and I think that’s what really helped us, and especially at this tournament; it’s pretty special to be around. They don’t care what their stats are they just want to win, and winning is fun for them.”
It would be unwise to discount the Elite Squad Prime’s pitching staff. Palmer used 12 pitchers in the first nine games and they combined for a 9-0 record and a 0.98 ERA. Molina, the 6-foot-5, 190-pound righty from Pembroke Pines, got into two games, didn’t allow a run on one hit in six innings, and struck out nine walked one.
Left-hander Anthony Masiello and right-hander Evan McKendry combined to pitch 14 1/3 innings and gave up two earned runs (1.01 ERA) on 15 hits with 18 strikeouts and just two walks.
“We haven’t given up many runs but every time we give up one run, we end up responding with two, three, four runs the next inning,” Palmer said. “That’s what I love to see with this group.”
Wednesday is “Championship Day” at the 16u PG BCS Finals and four teams with combined records of 34-2 will be putting their best foot forward in an attempt to take home championship goal.
All a coach can ask of their teams at this point – after they’ve already asked their young teams to give 100 percent in nine games over five days – is that they give a full effort during what it is hoped to be two more games in sauna-like conditions at JetBlue.
“We always preach that we want to be playing our best baseball in July,” Palmer said, “and last year we had another very talented group but they kind of cooled off in July. We now it’s July and these guys swung it real well today, so we’re happy with the progress that they’ve made.
“We tell them that we still have a long way to go as a team – we still have other PG events in July that we want to go out and win – so we’re hoping we can maintain it.”