Rachel Garcia takes the torch from mentor Lisa Fernandez at UCLA and on Team USA
As much as she’s known for flummoxing hitters with a devastating rise ball or smashing home runs, Rachel Garcia is recognized for her stone-faced expression while she does it all. UCLA’s star pitcher shows nothing more than a smirk if she gives up a home run and simply purses her lips for a split second if she disagrees with an umpire’s strike call.
But after nearly six years with the Bruins, one thing evokes emotions in Garcia: her relationship with assistant coach Lisa Fernandez.
“I look up to Coach Lisa so much,” she said while fighting back tears. “She’s been a huge impact in my life.”
Fernandez, a two-time NCAA champion at UCLA and three-time Olympic gold medalist, cast a long shadow for Garcia since she arrived in Westwood. Observers quickly compared the two: They were both short, right-handed pitchers who did as much damage at the plate as in the circle.
Garcia is the “newer Barbie of Lisa Fernandez,” said former Washington pitcher Danielle Lawrie. ESPN analyst Michele Smith, who won two gold medals with Fernandez, said seeing Garcia debut as a redshirt freshman in 2017 was like watching “a mini Lisa Fernandez.”
Maybe comparing a then-19-year-old to one of the most iconic players in the sport was premature, but Garcia has soared past sky-high expectations with a resume as long as a CVS receipt. And the 24-year-old is still hoping to bag more items.
In addition to being named the USA Softball collegiate player of the year twice, the Honda Cup winner as the top female collegiate athlete and the most outstanding player in the 2019 NCAA tournament that the Bruins won, Garcia is chasing a second NCAA championship and an Olympic medal.
Second-seeded UCLA faces Florida State at 6:30 p.m. PDT Thursday in the first round of the eight-team Women’s College World Series, with the best-of-three championship series concluding June 9 in Oklahoma City. The opener will air on ESPN.
Even without the final embellishments of her redshirt senior year, Garcia has earned entry to the sport’s elite sorority of top players. Fernandez can’t wait to welcome her.
“I am trying to hand off that torch to her,” the UCLA assistant said.
As a senior in 1993, Fernandez led the nation in batting average (.510) and ERA (0.25) as the Bruins finished second at the Women’s College World Series. Fernandez hit 11 of her career 15 home runs that season. Garcia has hit 11 homers in three straight seasons.
Like Fernandez, Garcia pounds the strike zone with fastballs that exceed 65 mph — Garcia’s touch 70 mph — and rise balls that fool runners by jumping out of range as they cross the plate. However, they don’t share a style at the plate. Fernandez hit for a higher average from the third spot in the lineup, good for a single up the middle or a solid double. If she hit a home run, she shrieked while running around the bases.
Garcia bats cleanup and has 42 career home runs. With a career .339 batting average and 1.36 career ERA, Garcia impacts the game with her bat more than any other pitcher Fernandez has seen, including herself.
“She’s got a flair for the dramatic that I don’t remember having,” Fernandez said with a chuckle. “She loves the moment. I don’t even know if she loves the moment or if she recognizes the moment, she just does her. That’s part of what makes her great.”
Garcia’s greatness stands out as the game has grown, Fernandez points out. When she started at UCLA in 1990, some high schools were still playing slow-pitch softball. Athletes that used to go to college on soccer or volleyball scholarships are now pursuing softball. In 1993, the NCAA introduced a yellow ball with raised, red seams and a harder core intended to jump-start struggling offenses. Scoring nationwide has gone from 3.43 runs per game in 1992 to 4.24 in 2018. The ERA across the country was 2.03 in 1992 compared to 3.56 in 2018.
If Garcia’s 0.95 ERA stays on track, it will be the ninth time UCLA’s leader had a sub-1.0 ERA for a nonpandemic season since the new ball in 1993. The Bruins met that mark in 16 of the first 18 seasons of the program.
Even if opponents score, Garcia has proven more than capable of providing her own run support. It was never more evident than the three-run walk-off shot she hit against Washington in the 2019 Women’s College World Series.
Garcia had pitched 10 scoreless innings in a pitchers’ duel against the Pac-12 rival that had knocked the Bruins out of the World Series a year earlier. She threw 179 pitches with 16 strikeouts then launched a 1-2 pitch over the left-field fence to send the Bruins to the championship series, where they beat No. 1 seed Oklahoma.
Garcia raised both hands as she rounded the bases and punched the air with her right fist. She thought about her grandfather Bob. He died in March 2019 and Garcia plays with “Papa” written on her visor with a small heart.
How did UCLA take Garcia, already the most dominant pitcher in college and the top player in the NCAA as a redshirt sophomore in 2018, and make her better? Add Fernandez.
Head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez shuffled responsibilities on the coaching staff in 2019, putting Fernandez in the bullpen with the pitchers and catchers, and assistant Kirk Walker on defense, while she continued working with hitters and managing games from the dugout.
Pairing Fernandez with the pitchers was a jolt to the already talented group that had 2018 national Gatorade player of the year Megan Faraimo and Holly Azevedo, an All-Pac-12 freshman team pitcher.
“She will be considered to be one of the best [at UCLA]. She was able to bring us back over the gap and take us over the top. Hopefully through her it will continue to filter into the next [players].”
— Former UCLA star Lisa Fernandez on current star pitcher Rachel Garcia
Fernandez’s passion, work ethic and attention to detail spread to her players. They prepared for long games by throwing bullpen sessions after cardio circuits that forced their minds to stay sharp despite physical fatigue. They steeled themselves for the harsh Oklahoma City heat by wearing leggings and long sleeves under their jerseys. Everyone was challenged to add more pitches to their repertoire, even Garcia, whose fastball and rise ball were good enough to dominate almost everyone on their own.
But “almost” wasn’t good enough.
“We don’t want to train and beat the 90%. We want to train and beat that 10%,” Fernandez said. “That 10% that might get us because we don’t have a complementary pitch or we don’t have something to counteract what their strength is.”
Like her coach, Garcia is listed at 5 feet 6. She overcomes her small stature with mechanics that efficiently transfer energy from her powerful legs through her core to her arm. She’s added a consistent drop ball to her game and can now effectively mix in off-speed pitches.
Garcia’s mental approach is simple, Inouye-Perez said. She goes with the flow. Fernandez, who was told as a youngster that she was too short to pitch, embraces the underdog mentality. Getting Garcia to meld both approaches produced one of the most decorated seasons in UCLA history.
In 2019, her first year working full time with Fernandez, Garcia became the fifth UCLA athlete to win the Honda Cup, the fifth player in the country to win USA Softball collegiate player of the year more than once, and the first player in Pac-12 history to be named conference player and pitcher of the year in the same season.
But the honor that carries the most weight is the 2019 NCAA championship. It ended a nine-year title drought for the most successful softball program in the country.
“She will be considered to be one of the best [at UCLA],” Fernandez said. “She was able to bring us back over the gap and take us over the top. Hopefully through her it will continue to filter into the next [players].”
With the NCAA tournament typically being the highest level of softball in the United States, it’s easy to conclude Garcia has scaled every mountain available to her. But Smith, the ESPN analyst, is quick to pump the brakes. Garcia is just 24. Smith, a left-handed pitcher and ASA Hall of Famer inductee, didn’t retire until 41.
“Is Rachel Garcia great now? Yes, of course,” Smith said. “Was Lisa Fernandez amazing at UCLA? Yes, of course. But that was the tip of the iceberg.”
The Tokyo Olympics loom. There’s a potential pro career in Japan or in the one-year-old domestic Athletes Unlimited league for which Garcia is already eligible to be drafted. Garcia, who is interested in American Sign Language and aspires to become an interpreter, just wants to take everything day by day.
First, there’s her final UCLA games. A second NCAA title would be the greatest feeling in the world, Garcia said. It would be another accomplishment to add to her parents’ overflowing trophy case in their Palmdale home that already links Garcia with her legendary mentor. The entryway display has Garcia’s USA Softball player-of-the-year trophies and the bronze player on the top is modeled after Fernandez.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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