PONCE

Yuma Sun - - SUNSPORTS -

has four more sib­lings. She at­tends Ari­zona Western and is pur­su­ing a nurs­ing de­gree. The only paid em­ployee in the home right now is his 73-year-old grand­fa­ther, Manuel Ponce Silva, who runs base­ball clin­ics for the San Luis youth.

His fa­ther lives four hours away in Baja Cal­i­for­nia, and Ponce rarely gets to see him. And his un­cle — named Manuel af­ter Ponce’s grand­fa­ther, a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial for the State of Baja Cal­i­for­nia — was mur­dered in Novem­ber, found in his Mex­i­cali apart­ment with a bul­let in his head and his face hit with a blunt ob­ject.

Be­fore ev­ery start on the mound, Ponce draws a cross and his un­cle’s ini­tials in the dirt.

Ponce knows what a pro­fes­sional-base­ball ca­reer will mean for this fam­ily. That money could come as soon as this sum­mer in the form of a sign­ing bonus from the MLB team that drafts him.

“I feel re­ally spe­cial, be­cause in a way, I didn’t know I was go­ing to make it this far,” Ponce said. “I also feel a lit­tle bit of pres­sure be­cause I’m afraid to let down peo­ple that have faith in me.

“I think about it a lot. Ev­ery time I go to my house, I think and I think and I think. I don’t know, I think about it too much some­times. In­stead of look­ing at it in a pos­i­tive way, I some­times look at it in a wrong way. It sucks be­cause I’m sup­posed to be a pos­i­tive guy, not a neg­a­tive guy.”

He deals with this in­ter­nal­iza­tion by go­ing to sleep and try­ing to for­get it the next day.

Ponce, who has a 3.56 GPA, is also well-aware of what a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion and de­gree will do for the rest of his life if base­ball does not work out. He plans to pur­sue a de­gree in phys­i­cal ther­apy in or­der to stay in­volved in base­ball, even if he is not play­ing.

Ten­sion soared for him when he had not re­ceived his ac­cep­tance let­ter from San Diego yet. But on April 4, af­ter months of an­tic­i­pa­tion, the mail came, and he was in. He pitched a one­hit­ter with 14 strike­outs against Wil­low Canyon that night.

Ponce left Joe Or­duno Park with the play­offs on his mind. He will start Satur­day, his 18th birth­day, against Boul­der Creek in the first round of the 6A State Tour­na­ment. Ponce wanted to face Hamil­ton High School, an ath­let­ics jug­ger­naut with four base­ball state ti­tles since 2003. And why not? He has a 9-0 record, 0.53 earned run aver­age and 75 strike­outs in 53 in­nings this sea­son.

Those sta­tis­tics, and the at­ten­tion he has got­ten in the past 12 months, did not come easy. The set­ting for ev­ery­thing that fol­lowed is this same park, the one that was now fad­ing in the rearview mir­ror of the jet-black Chevy Mal­ibu that Ponce drives home.

Ponce was born in Yuma and lived in Mex­ico for three years be­fore mov­ing in with his grand­par­ents in San Luis.

“My grand­par­ents wanted a bet­ter life for me,” he said.

When he was young, Ponce said he was “get­ting kind of fat” — hard to be­lieve now for the toned, 6-foot-2, 190-pound righthande­r, whose fast­ball has been clocked as high as 92 miles per hour.

It was not base­ball he played at first, though, but soc­cer. Manuel Ponce Silva — his grand­fa­ther, whom Ponce calls “dad” some­times — was not pleased with that choice.

When Ponce was 13, Silva formed a youth base­ball team to force his grand­son to play.

Base­ball has al­ways been a part of Silva’s life. When he was 18, the Mex­ico Tigers signed him. He played a year for Aguas­calientes, a mi­nor-league af­fil­i­ate, then was called up to play for the Tigers. Silva was part of Mex­i­can Base­ball League cham­pi­onship teams in 1965-66, and won the league’s Most Valu­able Player award in ’65.

It was then that the Cleve­land In­di­ans pur­sued him. In the era be­fore free agency in pro­fes­sional sports, play­ers had no bar­gain­ing rights. The Tigers re­fused to sell Silva to Cleve­land, and his dream of play­ing in the MLB met its end.

“I wanted re­ally badly to play in the United States,” Silva said in Span­ish, as Ponce trans­lated.

Silva played un­til 1977 and was a coach with the Mex­i­cali Ea­gles of the Mex­i­can Pa­cific League for eight years.

Since mov­ing to San Luis in 2001, when he took Ponce in, Silva has got­ten jobs do­ing grounds work on base­ball fields and run­ning youth clin­ics for low pay like he still is now, in ad­di­tion to tak­ing care of his wife, Ponce’s grand­mother.

“In Mex­ico, (we) didn’t make a lot of money; the money’s here in the U.S.” Silva said. “I made money when I was young, but not enough to last a life­time.”

Form­ing a team for a 13-year-old Ponce was not enough. He trained his grand­son re­lent­lessly.

For five hours a day, seven days a week, Ponce and Silva were at Joe Or­duno Park. The rou­tine: warm up, three buck­ets of fly balls, three buck­ets of ground balls, 150 balls for hit­ting and an hour of con­di­tion­ing.

“I used to tell my grandpa, ‘They should in­vent a ro­bot to pick up the balls,’” Ponce said.

Ponce, whom ev­ery­one de­scribes now as “goofy,” was the shy kid be­fore high school. He was part of the Ru­bik’s Cube Club and the Chess Club, and he kept to him­self. He likes school, par­tic­u­larly math.

“I like to strug­gle a lit­tle with num­bers,” Ponce said. “Right now, I have a ‘B’ in cal­cu­lus. It’s re­ally hard, but I like it. Even though I kind of don’t get it a lit­tle, I still like it.”

Ponce got a late start as a ballplayer, and he was far from the typ­i­cal jock. His team­mates at San Luis have been play­ing since they were 5 or younger. But now that they see how tal­ented Ponce has be­come, they re­mem­ber see­ing him and Silva at the park ev­ery time they went by.

“Ev­ery day af­ter prac­tice, if we came here to Joe Or­duno, he was here with his grand­par­ents,” said se­nior Ra­mon Mi­randa, an­other top starter in San Luis’ ro­ta­tion. “We knew what was up be­cause he was al­ways prac­tic­ing.”

“I al­ways see him here at Joe,” se­nior Je­sus Pulido said. “He was al­ways run­ning and train­ing with his grand­fa­ther. That’s why he’s good — he’s al­ways at the field, train­ing.”

Af­ter the Sham­rock Clas­sic tour­na­ment his sopho­more year, when the Sidewinder­s had played five games in three days, San Luis head base­ball coach Ce­sar Castillo first saw what Mi­randa and Pulido had al­ready wit­nessed.

“We get off the bus, and what I see with this kid — I’m tired and I’m a coach — I see him get off the bus and he starts jog­ging,” Castillo said. “Then he goes to the cage. That’s ded­i­ca­tion. That’s why he is where he is.”

Ponce can take it too far, though. Ear­lier this sea­son, af­ter a prac­tice, a run and weightlift­ing, he de­cided to go for an­other run at the park by him­self, as he of­ten does. He started his run at 9 p.m. and col­lapsed in the out­field of the base­ball field. He woke up at mid­night.

“I was push­ing my­self too hard,” he said.

Once Ponce tried out for the high school base­ball team, the raw tal­ent and up­side was ap­par­ent. He wanted to pitch, but he couldn’t throw strikes. Pitch­ing coach Tim Mor­ri­son helped him with his me­chan­ics, but he played with fresh­men his first year and spar­ingly on var­sity the next sea­son.

All Ponce threw was a fast­ball, which was not go­ing to be enough if he wanted to pitch on var­sity as a ju­nior. A San Luis man who fre­quents Joe Or­duno Park, known to Ponce only as “Pollo” — or, “chicken” — was pitch­ing in the bullpen one day when Ponce was train­ing. Ponce ap­proached Pollo and asked how to throw a slider. Pollo showed him the grip and told Ponce to twist his wrist but not too much.

Ponce’s slider, cou­pled with his low-90s fast­ball, has since be­come a deadly weapon against op­pos­ing bat­ters.

Ponce fre­quented week­end games in Mex­ico dur­ing that sea­son be­cause he did not re­ceive much play­ing time for the Sidewinder­s. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Sara­p­eros de Saltillo, a Mex­i­can Base­ball League or­ga­ni­za­tion, saw him play and ex­tended an in­vi­ta­tion to Sara­p­eros Academia, the team’s sum­mer de­vel­op­ment camp in Mex­ico City.

“It was my turn­ing point,” Ponce said, adding later, “That’s when I started lik­ing base­ball a lot more.”

Ponce came back for his ju­nior year a dif­fer­ent player. He went 5-1 with a 1.66 ERA and 64 strike­outs in 46 1/3 in­nings. At the plate, he hit .484, slugged .763, had 39 runs bat­ted in and a school-record 45 hits. In the state cham­pi­onship against Al­ham­bra, he struck out a ca­reer-best 11 bat­ters and al­lowed one earned run in five in­nings; and he went 2-for-3 with a dou­ble and a home run, driv­ing in both bat­ters in the Sidewinder­s’ 3-2 loss.

“That’s a mem­ory I won’t for­get, re­gard­less of the out­come, be­cause that’s the most im­por­tant game of (Ponce’s) ca­reer and he car­ried us, of­fen­sively and on the mound,” Castillo said. “I don’t think you can du­pli­cate what he did that day.

“Ev­ery­thing boomed right af­ter that.”

On a drive to New Mex­ico, Andy Rojo turned to Gabe Or­tiz and asked if there were any Ari­zona high school play­ers they missed. Rojo — the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and South­west re­gional di­rec­tor for USA Base­ball’s Na­tional Team Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Se­ries — fig­ured they needed one more try­out. In ad­di­tion to his staff role with NTIS, Or­tiz served as an as­sis­tant base­ball coach for 13 years at Kofa High School in Yuma be­fore tak­ing a job at Ari­zona Western last fall.

“There’s two guys in San Luis that are pretty freakin’ good,” Or­tiz told Rojo, re­fer­ring to Ponce and Mi­randa. “They’re play­ers.”

Mi­randa al­ready had a travel-team com­mit­ment, but Ponce could make it.

NTIS is a grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tion that holds try­outs for 11- to 17-year-olds across the coun­try, takes the best 18 play­ers in each re­gion to form a team and holds a na­tional tour­na­ment in Cary, N.C.

The try­out is like that of a show­case, or an NFL Com­bine for base­ball. The NTIS scouts mea­sure exit ve­loc­ity off the bat, ve­loc­ity from the out­field and the mound; play­ers take bat­ting prac­tice and get eval­u­ated at their de­fen­sive po­si­tions.

Ponce threw 93 mph from the out­field.

“That kind of perked some peo­ple up a lit­tle bit, es­pe­cially our di­rec­tor,” Or­tiz said. “We get him on the mound and he’s 91, 90, 89. It’s just elec­tric.”

“Who is this kid?” Rojo asked Or­tiz. So, Ponce was in. And, Rojo told Or­tiz, if Ponce could re­turn for their sec­ond try­out, col­lege coaches from the Pac-12, Big West and West Coast Con­fer­ence would be there.

“He’s pop­ping the mitt and radar guns are ev­ery­where,” Or­tiz said of the sec­ond try­out. “There were a cou­ple of guys that were in the low-90s, as well, but he’s cre­at­ing buzz be­cause no one’s on him. No one’s ever seen him.”

“I did see re­ac­tions,” Ponce said. “I know, rarely, peo­ple go out from San Luis. I was ex­cited to rep­re­sent the whole city by go­ing to the NTIS stuff.”

Shortly there­after, the buzz turned into a flight of bum­ble­bees. Ponce joined the Ag­gies, a travel team based out of Wat­sonville, Calif., 90 miles south of San Fran­cisco. Ten to 15 scouts were in at­ten­dance to see Ponce pitch at the Phil Singer In­vi­ta­tional in San Diego in late July 2016.

“It was to­tally un­ex­pected,” Ponce said.

Uni­ver­sity of San Diego pitch­ing coach Nathan Choate had heard of Ponce when he was at Grand Canyon Uni­ver­sity in the same po­si­tion. Castillo had con­tacted him about Ponce. Now with the Toreros, Choate was one of those in the crowd with a radar gun.

Choate first no­ticed Ponce’s “loose arm” and his body. Then, the in­tan­gi­bles won him over.

“He’s ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive and I liked that about him,” Choate said in a phone in­ter­view. “It’s kind of how he goes about his busi­ness. He’s su­per ag­gres­sive and at­tacks.”

An­other qual­ity that at­tracted to Choate to Ponce was his ea­ger­ness to be both a stu­dent and an ath­lete.

“He val­ues the ed­u­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of San Diego, which is a very, very good school,” Choate said. “It shows he wants to chal­lenge him­self, aca­dem­i­cally.”

Choate, San Diego head coach Rich Hill, Ag­gies coach Alex Rivera, Ponce and his mom were all a part of a tour of the uni­ver­sity and the base­ball fa­cil­i­ties af­ter the tour­na­ment ended.

When they went to Fowler Park, the base­ball sta­dium, Hill asked Ponce to look to the stands and asked, “Do you see your­self pitch­ing here?”

Hill told Ponce they en­vi­sioned him even­tu­ally be­ing the Toreros’ Fri­day night starter, the ace of a col­lege pitch­ing ro­ta­tion. San Diego has made the NCAA Tour­na­ment in eight of the past 15 years and has a laun­dry list of MLB ex­ports, in­clud­ing 2016 Na­tional League MVP Kris Bryant.

At the end of the tour, San Diego of­fered Ponce a full schol­ar­ship. He ver­bally com­mit­ted right there and of­fi­cially signed Nov. 15 — de­spite draw­ing in­ter­est from Ari­zona State, Ari­zona, Cal, Long Beach State and North Carolina, among

Ponce pitched for the Ag­gies against the Gar­ci­a­parra Base­ball Group. He dom­i­nated on the mound, and the GBG — af­ter see­ing him dis­man­tle their starstud­ded lineup — wanted to add him to their ros­ter for the WWBA World Cham­pi­onship, one of the pre­mier am­a­teur tour­na­ments in the coun­try.

“I didn’t even know who Gar­ci­a­parra was,” said Ponce, who later learned of six-time All-Star short­stop No­mar Gar­ci­a­parra.

At the WWBAs in Jupiter, Fla., Ponce had a hard time fit­ting in with this group of her­alded high school prospects. Among his team­mates were com­mits to UCLA, Cal State Fuller­ton, North Carolina State, Stan­ford, Louisiana State and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

“I ar­rived there, and they didn’t talk to me be­cause I was Mex­i­can,” Ponce said. “They’re all white. I think they kind of hated me a lit­tle at first. They didn’t talk to me at all.

“Then they saw me pitch, and then they started talk­ing to me. I wanted to pitch so I could see their re­ac­tions.”

His GBG pitch­ing coach told his pitch­ers to hit the No. 3 hit­ter if they get the first two bat­ters out to scare the op­pos­ing team. No one else did — un­til Ponce took the mound.

“The first time I pitched, I did that,” Ponce said. “I smiled for the coach.”

The crowd at this tour­na­ment was filled with MLB scouts and ex­ec­u­tives, an­other note Ponce did not find out about un­til later. All along the grand­stands were golf carts filled with pro big­wigs hold­ing radar guns, stop­watches and clip­boards. Only 26 pitch­ers in the tour­na­ment threw harder than he did. GBG made it to the quar­ter­fi­nals.

That at­ti­tude from the sum­mer has spread to his se­nior sea­son.

“Since I came from Florida, I’ve been kind of like, I don’t know, an ass­hole some­times,” Ponce said. “I try to hit hit­ters.”

In a March 9 game against Gila Ridge, Ponce hit five bat­ters but ended the out­ing with a com­plete-game, twohit shutout and 14 strike­outs. He even told one of his friends on the op­pos­ing team, catcher Ram­ces Urias, that he was go­ing to hit him.

“I was kind of jok­ing a lit­tle, but then my ball moved,” Ponce said.

Ponce has dou­bled down on his tremen­dous ju­nior sea­son with an un­matched 2017 cam­paign. He has come out of nowhere as a hot prospect who has al­lowed just four earned runs in 53 in­nings. He’s pitch­ing in­side, has de­vel­oped a changeup he has de­ployed against left­handed bat­ters and is throw­ing like he owns the field.

Ponce is set on at­tend­ing the Uni­ver­sity of San Diego and pitch­ing for the Toreros for at least three years. The fi­nan­cial pres­sure he faces sur­round­ing the draft lingers.

Peo­ple who once hated him now talk as if they were friends. Those who were al­ready nice are es­pe­cially so. He knows he has to main­tain nor­malcy through this me­te­oric change in his life, and be­lieves in the motto, “Stay hun­gry. Stay hum­ble.”

“Don’t get up on your­self,” Ponce said. “Don’t think you’re a big god of the town or some­thing like that. That will make peo­ple hate you.”

He thinks he might get drafted in the teen rounds of the MLB Draft in June. Castillo, Ponce’s high school coach, ex­pects fifth to 10th round, and sees Los An­ge­les Dodgers pitcher Bran­don McCarthy in Ponce. Dur­ing Castillo’s three-year mi­nor­league ca­reer as a catcher in the Chicago White Sox or­ga­ni­za­tion, he caught an 18- to 20-year-old ver­sion of McCarthy in rookie ball and Sin­gle-A.

Ponce is ready in case he gets drafted higher than ex­pected, or re­ceives a sign­ing-bonus of­fer more than an­tic­i­pated for the slot in which he is se­lected.

“There’s a line I would cross, but I would have to think about it, re­ally,” Ponce said. “I didn’t want to say it, but like a mil­lion or some­thing like that.”

PHOTO BY RANDY HOEFT/YUMA SUN

SAN LUIS GABRIEL PONCE STANDS ON SEC­OND BASE af­ter hit­ting an RBI dou­ble in the top of the fourth in­ning against Al­ham­bra in the Ari­zona In­ter­scholas­tic As­so­ci­a­tion Di­vi­sion III State Cham­pi­onship at Sur­prise Sta­dium. Ponce would end his night go­ing...

PHOTO BY WARNER STRAUSBAUG­H/YUMA SUN

GABRIEL PONCE (RIGHT) DOES A SOFT-TOSS DRILL with his grand­fa­ther, Manuel Ponce Silva, at Joe Or­duno Park on Tues­day. The two have a close re­la­tion­ship, and Silva, a for­mer Mex­i­can Base­ball League player and coach, has trained Ponce since he was 13.

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