FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Key West Express is a high-speed passenger ferry that shuttles fun- and sun-seekers from Fort Myers Beach down to Key West and back in just over three hours, one-way. The Express is sleek, precise and, most importantly, fast and fun.
A different version of the Key West Express, albeit with many of the same attributes, was on display at JetBlue Park late Tuesday night as the second day of the three-day Perfect Game Junior National Showcase came to a close.
Gregory Veliz, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound hard-throwing right-hander who will be a junior at Key West (Fla.) High School in the fall, tied an event record when he delivered a 95 miles-per-hour fastball under the lights at the park known locally as Fenway South. His fastball sat 93-95 mph in his two innings of work; he threw a hard 76 mph curveball, showed a changeup that sat 85-88 and struck out four.
“I thought I pitched good last night,” Veliz said Wednesday morning. “The first inning was easy, but in the second inning I walked a guy. I regrouped on the back of the mound and I came out and I was using my leg-kick good; I spotted it and I got outs.”
Veliz said he touched 95 mph during his spring high school season but called doing it on this stage “pretty cool.” He admitted to peeking at the velocities as they were posted on a side message board at the stadium, but missed it when it flashed “95”, a velo that matched the effort put forth by Lance McCullers at the 2010 PG Jr. National.
“When I heard ‘95’ I thought, that’s legit,” he said. “My changeup was good and my breaking ball was good, and it was a happy night. It was late, but it was happy. Right now I’m feeling pretty comfortable.”
The rosters at this week’s PG Jr. National Showcase were over-flowing with the best right-handed pitching talent in the country from the class of 2016.
Veliz, ranked No. 5 overall, is the No. 3-ranked right-hander in the land behind Anthony Molina from Pembroke Pines, Fla., and Austin Bergner from Windermere, Fla., both of whom pitched here this week. Four other righties ranked in the top-16 nationally also took their turns.
“Of course, it’s an honor to get chosen for Junior Nationals; some of the best players are here from Perfect Game and in the whole country,” Veliz said Tuesday. “I’m coming out here and I’m trying to do good, and I’m trying to get my ranking higher. I try to do the best that I can and, like I said, get higher than the person in front of me, and just fight. I want to study him and try to beat his numbers at home and try to bring it here.”
With so many highly ranked and regarded pitchers on the eight rosters, the young players had ample opportunity to swap stories and share notes. These elite arms not only came from Florida but from Utah, Illinois, Virginia and Indiana.
“It’s very fun because all these guys are working for the same thing that I’m working for,” Veliz said. “We can connect and we can talk about it, and they can see that I work hard and I know they work hard because they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. It’s like we’re the same people and we all want the same thing.”
Teri Veliz, Gregory’s mother, was in the JetBlue Park seats on Tuesday, and acknowledged that there was nowhere else her son would rather be.
“This is what he loves; this is what we do,” she said with a smile crossing her face. “This is what he lives for and he wants to see how far he can go. This keeps him out of trouble and he’s doing what he loves, and he won’t get a second chance to do it.”
An admitted “baseball guy” his entire life, Veliz said that when his dad (also named Gregory) found out that he and Teri would be having a son, the elder Gregory announced that the yet-unborn little boy would one day be a baseball standout.
Veliz also said his older brother Eddie Roberts – another right-handed pitcher who was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 30th round of the 2002 MLB amateur draft – had a big impact on him early in his baseball career.
“I really looked up to him; he made a big impression,” Veliz said. “With me and him and my dad, every day, we were at the school working, just working.”
Veliz, who celebrated his 17th birthday on April 10, has played for Richie Palmer with the Miami-based South Florida Elite Squad and Elite Squad Baseball for the past two summers, and has excelled. He was named to the all-tournament team at the 2013 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship and has played in eight other PG WWBA or PG BCS tournaments with the Elite Squad.
“It’s been a very positive experience,” Veliz said. “Especially coming from Key West – there isn’t a summer team down there – so going up to there and playing with great players and being (on a top) travel ball team in the country is huge. I love it every time I come up there in the summer and I look forward to it throughout the season.
“I get to come up and play with those guys and make so many friends; it’s very, very fun.”
Veliz’s breakout performance came late last year at the PG National Underclass Showcase-Main Event Dec. 28-30 right here at JetBlue Park. He was a standout everywhere he positioned himself – on the mound, in the field and at the plate – while earning a perfect 10.0 PG grade, and rose from No. 16 to No. 5 when the updated 2016 prospect rankings were released in February 2014.
He kept it going with a terrific sophomore season this spring at Key West High, helping the Conchs to a 26-4-1 record after a loss in one of the four FHSAA Class 4A Regional Finals.
On the mound, Veliz finished 8-0 with a 1.59 ERA, and allowed 24 hits, struck out 83 and walked 26 in 57 1/3 innings. He was also one of the Conchs’ top hitters, batting .434 (43-for-99) with 11 doubles, four triples, three home runs, 31 runs batted in and 29 runs scored.
While he might sometimes feel as if he’s lived in obscurity growing up in Key West, his easy-going manner seems to fit the stereotype often applied to the natives.
“It’s been very fun,” he said of his upbringing in the Florida Keys. “Everybody thinks I must be a big water guy, but I’m not. I spend a lot of my time at the (baseball) field, and just practice. I like getting away from everything and just doing my own thing and working by myself.”
In a couple of years, depending on how the 2016 MLB June First-Year Player Draft plays out, Vilez could be experiencing big-city life and a bright spotlight first hand. He has verbally committed to the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., as so many of Palmer’s Elite Squad Baseball’s top prospects often do.
“Being a Canes fan all my life and wanting to wear that ‘Miami’ across my chest and being a Hurricane – that’s all I’ve wanted to do my whole life,” Veliz said. “Then I got the opportunity and when they called and I went on my visit, I just fell in love (with Coral Gables). I couldn’t say no; I had to go there.”
The Key West Express doesn’t cruise from Miami to Key West, but it’s a straight shot right down iconic U.S. Highway A-1-A. Whether by land or by sea, Gregory Veliz’s mom has enjoyed and will continue to enjoy the ride, smiling while her son develops into his own version of the “Key West Express.”
“Watching him grow and improve is very exciting every day,” Teri said. “Every day is a good day, and he likes to say it’s good to be him. What more can you ask for in life.”