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Hours before the Toronto Raptors leading scorer and top defender Kawhi Leonard takes the floor in the NBA Finals and further cements his legacy as a generational two-way player, another athlete continued on a similar mission in Oklahoma City.
Like Leonard, UCLA softball’s Rachel Garcia, the 2018 and 2019 USA Softball Player of the Year, is calm, steady and perhaps the best all-around player in her sport.
UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez described Garcia as a “rare breed.” The first player to win both Pac-12 player and pitcher of the year in the same season, Garcia isn’t just the type of “rare” coaches often use to describe their top talents.
The redshirt junior’s 49 RBIs rank her third on No. 2 seed UCLA (51-6, 20-4 Pac-12). Her 1.01 ERA ranks her third in the country entering the Bruins’ matchup with No. 7 seed Minnesota on Thursday in the Women’s College World Series. In a sports world littered with position specialists, a two-way role like Garcia’s is a dwindling concept.
Including her time as a player, Inouye-Perez has spent 31 seasons with UCLA and has worked with multiple two-way All-Americans. She said UCLA is known for the pitcher-hitter combination. Perhaps the program’s best example ever, Lisa Fernandez, is an assistant with the Bruins.
In Fernandez’s senior season with UCLA in 1993 she led the nation with the lowest era (0.25) as a pitcher and highest batting average (.510) for a hitter. Fernandez, a three-time gold medalist, has worked closely with Garcia on the art of mastering multiple crafts.
“It's not very common,” Fernandez said of two-way players. “Maybe back in the day it used to be but as we've gotten bigger in the game, it's now become a little bit more one-dimensional. Usually pitchers are pitchers. I prefer to continue pitchers to be athletes.”
As Garcia put it, the practice schedule for a two-way player can be “a little overwhelming.” The ace of the staff, clean-up hitter and sometimes first baseman can’t pitch a two-hour bullpen, hit in the cage and field ground balls in one practice. So she focuses on certain things each day. The maintenance work on other skills is compensated for either before or after practice, sometimes without coaching supervision.
“I had a lot of coaches tell me that, when I get older, I probably won't be hitting anymore and that my main priority is pitching,” Garcia said. “And it always drove me to just succeed at both.”
Between hurling every pitch in a game and batting three or four times, Garcia’s legs are often tired. She’s used to that, though. Prior to bullpen sessions, Fernandez often has her pitchers complete a “champ camp.” The Crossfit-esque circuit includes med ball slams, box jumps and battle rope movements among a long list of possible exercises. After 15-30 minutes, Garcia enters the circle feeling like she’s already pitched a full seven innings. Then, she plays a series of mini-games, like “two out of three” in which pitchers try to throw two strikes per every three pitches while changing movement and location.
In these sessions, Fernandez also teaches Garcia how her hitter’s mindset can help in the circle. Garcia knows how hitters perceive her pitches and what a hitter would expect her next pitch to be based on the throw prior. So, she counteracts the hitters logic.
She does the opposite while hitting, using her experience as an elite pitcher to discern when a pitcher doesn’t have their best stuff or what they might try if they do feel confident. In 2019, that’s led to a .344 batting average and nine home runs.
“To have the ability to do both, that's a lot shorter list [of great players],” Inouye-Perez said. “And if you look at our entire sport it's a lot shorter list. [Garcia] joins a pretty historic family of some of the best pitcher-hitter players that have never played the game.”
With help from Fernandez, Garcia’s still adding to her game. She’s calling some of her own pitches this year. Her ERA’s dropped three tenths of a run. She’s worked on a drop ball, a sinking pitch that can stifle hitters when juxtaposed with Garcia’s roughly 70 mph fastball. For teammate Bubba Nickles, who’s played against Garcia since travel ball, hitting the standout pitcher isn’t getting any easier.
“She has speed with movement,” said Nickles, the Bruins’ leader in RBIs. “At least that’s what’s difficult for me [to hit]. It can be easy to catch up to speed if it’s flat but she makes the ball move pretty well.”
The key for Garcia is not letting the success or failure in one aspect of the game dictate the other.
A week ago Garcia allowed a home run in the first inning of UCLA’s first Super Regional game against James Madison. Two innings later with the game tied, she smacked a three-run homer over the centerfield fence. The next inning she rolled a single into left field, scoring another run. She finished in the circle with a complete-game, 12-strikeout win.
When Garcia steps into the circle on Thursday, her likely counterpart on Minnesota won’t have taken an at-bat all year. The same is true for the top inning throwers for the next rounds potential opponents in Washington or Arizona. It’s standard practice. Garcia just isn’t into that.
“I've only seen very few pitchers that hit,” Garcia said. “But I hope to inspire younger girls. And just like any other pitcher who hits, I hope to inspire other girls to be what they want and not just be a pitcher.”
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