UCLA star Rachel Garcia hits, pitches, repeats as espnW softball player of the year
Rachel Garcia stepped to the plate for her second shot of the day at Megan Good. Game 1 of the UCLA-James Madison super-regional showdown was tied 1-1 in the third inning, and two Bruins were aboard the bases.
The Garcia vs. Good matchup was the most anticipated one of the weekend. Like Garcia, Good pitched and hit. Like Garcia, Good put up monster numbers all season. They were two of three finalists for USA Softball collegiate player of the year.
Garcia had popped out in the first, but now was her chance to break the game open. From her perch on second base, Bruins sophomore Briana Perez groaned as Garcia watched Good's first pitch sail right down the middle of the plate.
The second pitch was a different story. Garcia crushed it, and Perez jumped up and down as soon as she heard the ball hit the bat because she knew it was gone. Garcia's three-run home run put the Bruins up 4-1 and a step closer to the Women's College World Series. UCLA would go on to win 6-1 and Garcia would rack up 12 strikeouts, including three K's of Good.
"Rachel does Rachel things at the most perfect time," Perez said. "Hitting home runs when we need home runs, striking out batters when we need it, just being so clutch."
Rachel doing Rachel things is why the junior is the espnW Player of the Year for the second straight season. Whether she is in the circle, on first base or at the plate, Garcia is the heartbeat of the Bruins, who are back in the Women's College World Series aiming for a 12th national title. Garcia brought a 24-1 record with a 1.01 ERA, the third-best ERA in the country, to Oklahoma City. She was fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio and third in strikeouts per seven innings. At the plate, Garcia was hitting .344 with 54 hits through super regionals. Her 49 RBIs were good for third-most on a talented offensive team. And she did it all in one of the toughest conferences in the country.
"I think every pitcher is scared to throw to her when she comes up," Bruins senior Taylor Pack said.
When Garcia is on the field, she rarely betrays emotion. She's steady and calm, always projecting control and confidence. Her teammates latch onto that confidence and use it to believe in themselves. "You never doubt her, and you never see her doubting herself," Perez said.
The mental toughness of Garcia and the leadership she derives from it have been an evolution for her this season. It's not that she wasn't mentally tough last year, but UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez specifically paired Garcia (and the rest of the pitching staff) with assistant coach and Hall of Fame pitcher Lisa Fernandez to develop the toughness she believes is required to win.
"I believe [the pitching staff is] better, stronger and more fit mentally and physically," Inouye-Perez said. "I just think she's in a better place."
Inouye-Perez was also quick to point out that Garcia keeps getting better and adding more pitches to her already formidable repertoire. Garcia has worked on a drop ball and honed her off-speed pitches.
Sometimes referred to as the team's "fixer" by her teammates, Garcia shoulders that burden with pride. She will regularly gather the team to tell them what they need to hear to refocus -- though the content of those speeches remains a secret. "I probably couldn't repeat what she said," Perez said, laughing.
After her home run against JMU, Garcia returned to the dugout and immediately encouraged the Bruins because she believed Good was hittable. She'd just proved it, but she wanted her teammates to believe it, too.
"She was making sure that we knew we could all do it," fellow junior Bubba Nickles said. "It wasn't just going to be her holding up the team."
Garcia, though, pumps up herself as much as she does her team.
"I do get nervous," Garcia said. "My heart starts racing, and I get so excited."
She resettles by finding her parents in the stands, focusing on a banner or leaning on her teammates. Then she'll give herself a reminder: "I just say that, 'You're a badass,'" she said. She whispered that last word.
Garcia might whisper about her greatness, but to her team, it is in the fabric of who she is.
"John Wooden's definition of competitive greatness really captures what Rachel's about," freshman pitcher Megan Faraimo said. "She is at her best when her best is needed."
After the Bruins' final out at the WCWS, Garcia plans to join the U.S. national team and hopes to make the team for the 2020 Olympics.
Garcia's greatness isn't lost on her red-white-and-blue teammates, either.
"Rachel is someone who lights up in the big moments," Monica Abbott said. "She lights up the room; she lights up the stage in those moments. She's not someone out there craving to be the big moment. She steps into the moment and creates it. She is the moment. She is that big moment."