‘They are the glue’: How behind-the-scenes bullpen catchers carry UCLA softball

UCLA pitcher Megan Faraimo warms up with catcher Taylor Sullivan as pitching coach Lisa Fernandez observes in the bullpen
UCLA pitcher Megan Faraimo warms up with bullpen catcher Taylor Sullivan as pitching coach Lisa Fernandez observes April 29 at Easton Stadium.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Share

Calls of “heads up” didn’t register for pitcher Megan Faraimo as an errant foul ball came hurtling toward the UCLA bullpen. The redshirt junior stood at the center of the dirt-covered space, too consumed by another day’s work in the bullpen to notice incoming danger. Other teammates who heeded the original warnings watched for a second to see whether the star pitcher would move.

She did just in time, yelping and scrambling toward the wall before the ball fell a few feet from where she had been standing. Taylor Sullivan stayed ready to spring into action if necessary.

“I just saw UCLA softball’s career nearly end right here,” the gregarious catcher said afterward, pantomiming herself tackling Faraimo out of harm’s way.

Pitchers such as Faraimo are the most visible symbol of sixth-ranked UCLA’s national championship hopes. The 6-foot right-hander leads a three-armed pitching staff that has combined for five no-hitters — including three perfect games — this season. Faraimo is the headliner with 164 1/3 innings pitched and a Pac-12 Conference-best 252 strikeouts entering the NCAA regionals Friday, when the Bruins host Grand Canyon at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. Loyola Marymount faces Mississippi at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN+.

After waiting in the wings, Holly Azevedo is breaking through with career bests in ERA (1.15) and strikeouts (120). Lauren Shaw, a left-handed transfer from Iowa, leads the Pac-12 with a 0.89 ERA.

The pitchers own the spotlight, but they credit the work of their bullpen catchers for setting the stage. Sullivan and Sara Rusconi Vicinanza pore over game film to prepare scouting reports for their teammates. They catch hundreds of pitches a day in the bullpen while starting catchers work on hitting and defense. Then when the lights turn on for game day, they retreat into the dugout, holding clipboards and calling out signals for the pitchers.

Advertisement

“They’re the reason why [the pitching staff is] great,” assistant coach Lisa Fernandez said. “They are the glue that binds us.”

UCLA has named Janelle McDonald its new gymnastics coach. McDonald takes over for Chris Waller, who resigned last month.

‘Outsmart them’

Fernandez, a two-time national champion pitcher at UCLA, 24-year assistant coach and towering icon in the sport, has been a part of and coached some of the best pitching staffs in college softball. But this year’s group did something none of her previous groups accomplished.

The Bruins threw three perfect games in eight days. Two came from Faraimo — including a 15-strikeout, five-inning mercy-rule win over Cal State Bakersfield — and a third was a shared effort between Faraimo and Shaw. The three perfect games in a season match the program record set in 1985.

Add in two no-hitters from Azevedo, including a 3-0 shutout against Pac-12 rival Arizona, and UCLA’s five no-hitters are the most for a season since 2002.

Behind every historic feat on the field are hours of preparation off it. Each pitch is called after extensive film study. The positioning of defenders is choreographed and outlined on cheat sheets tucked in each player’s wrist band.

UCLA bullpen catchers Sara Rusconi Vicinanza, left, and Taylor Sullivan laugh while looking at scouting reports
UCLA bullpen catchers Sara Rusconi Vicinanza, left, and Taylor Sullivan laugh while looking at scouting reports before a game against Utah on April 29 at Easton Stadium.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Whenever the Bruins peek at their forearms, they’re relying on Rusconi Vicinanza and Sullivan’s work. The bullpen catchers organize the charts every week after watching film of each batter’s tendencies. Using their understanding of each pitcher’s strengths, the catchers think of the best pitch sequence to get each batter out and note their suggestions on the pitcher’s card. They compile the information in a Google Doc, print it out and cut it down to index card-sized sheets before each game.

Advertisement

Until last year, Fernandez read the scouting report aloud during a team meeting so each player could take individual notes. It was a time-consuming chore. Head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez wanted to find a more efficient way to relay the critical information.

Learning the scouting and film study techniques from Fernandez, Rusconi Vicinanza and Sullivan emerged as the answer.

“What coach Lisa has ingrained in us, how methodical she is ... I think her elevating our sharpness of that has made watching [film] for them that much more enjoyable,” said Rusconi Vicinanza, a redshirt sophomore. “It’s almost like a game to Taylor and I because we can kind of outsmart them.”

Bruins bullpen catcher Sara Rusconi Vicinanza, in black coat, hits the field with the team before a game against Utah.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Rusconi Vicinanza excels in the scouting responsibilities of being a bullpen catcher. While Sullivan is a converted third baseman, Rusconi Vicinanza was a four-year catcher and third baseman at San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High. She signed a national letter of intent to the University of San Diego out of high school.

But a coaching change at USD during Rusconi Vicinanza’s senior year of high school put her back on the recruiting market. She followed travel ball teammates Lexi Sosa and Seneca Curo to UCLA.

Rusconi Vicinanza had seven hits and seven RBIs in 16 at-bats as a freshman in 2020, including a three-run homer. Injuries have hampered her for two years, but she quickly accepted the new role of putting the needs of her teammates first. She has so much pride in her job that during game days, she will likely yell at anyone who touches her clipboard.

“But that’s in the best way possible,” Shaw said with a smile. “[The catchers] go above and beyond every day.”

UCLA is optimistic about the direction of its football program, which has plenty of depth in some key areas. Here are five takeaways from spring practice.

Coaches and sports psychologists

The UCLA bullpen is an isolated world where pitchers spend hours a day perfecting their arsenal. Their catchers, crouched behind the plate, are more than just static backdrops responsible for throwing the ball back.

Rusconi Vicinanza and Sullivan follow every pitch with a specific comment. Whether the pitch needed more spin, had good location or didn’t move as much as the last, no general blanket statements are allowed.

“It’s not helpful to them if we say, ‘Oh, that was OK,’ ” Sullivan said. “In the game, you don’t want their pitches to be just OK if you know they’re capable of having A-plus pitches.”

Advertisement

Fernandez considers her bullpen catchers part-time coaches and “borderline sports psychologists.” The best catchers must be adept at knowing what feedback to give and how to present it to each pitcher. The UCLA staff’s communication styles are as diverse as their skill sets.

UCLA bullpen catcher Taylor Sullivan calls out instructions during a game against Utah.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Azevedo is an inquisitive drop-ball pitcher who challenges her coaches in positive ways. Shaw, a left-hander who spins the ball past opponents, is a “borderline flower child” who Fernandez knows can be hard on herself at times and needs to be reminded to give herself grace. Faraimo, the rise-ball ace, is a laser-focused competitor.

The bullpen catchers can code switch between all of them.

“There’s a difference between how I like to be talked to versus how Holly likes to be talked to and how to get the most out of our workout,” said Faraimo, who works primarily with Sullivan in the bullpen. “Taylor knows exactly what to say and when not to say anything. To have that awareness is something that I think mature catchers have, which is really cool to see for her because she’s just kind of starting.”

Sullivan was a three-sport athlete at Kamehameha Schools in Kea’au, Hawaii, on the state’s Big Island. In addition to starring as a third baseman in softball, she played basketball and won Big Island Interscholastic Federation discus and shot put championships. She fell in love with UCLA while attending a softball camp in seventh grade.

When Inouye-Perez or Fernandez held camps in Hawaii, Sullivan showed up, even if it meant flying from a different island. The coaching staff loved her persistence, gregarious personality and passion for UCLA softball, but the Bruins didn’t have enough roster spots. Inouye-Perez hated that phone call.

“You have to realize that your ability to buy in to whatever the team needs you to do and put your own needs aside is what’s going to make us get back to OKC.”

— UCLA bullpen catcher Sara Rusconi Vicinanza

Sullivan instead planned to play softball at Georgetown. Two months before she was set to become a Hoya, she got word back from UCLA. Her application as a student was accepted. She was going to be a Bruin one way or another.

“How do you not want that person?” Fernandez said of Sullivan, an aspiring lawyer who joined the team as a manager before moving into the bullpen. “I can’t say any more positive things about Taylor because for someone who gets nothing in return, she has found great value in not only what she can provide to the team but to the university.”

Little things

UCLA has the most NCAA softball championships of any program. Gatorade player of the year winners, Olympic hopefuls and top recruits flock to the campus in the heart of a softball hotbed. But for every Rachel Garcia or Bubba Nickles who led the Bruins to a national title before playing in the Tokyo Olympics, there are countless other players who contribute just as much work to the Bruins’ success with less fanfare.

Advertisement

It’s those secret stars who keep the UCLA softball train churning toward its ultimate destination: the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.

“There have been some rock stars that have come through this program, the best that have been in this sport, but the focus is never about them,” Inouye-Perez said. “It’s about all the little things and all the things that allow us the opportunity to have some big moments.”

UCLA bullpen catcher Taylor Sullivan, center, is greeted by pitcher Megan Faraimo while the team is introduced to the crowd.
Bruins bullpen catcher Taylor Sullivan, center, is greeted by pitcher Megan Faraimo while the team is introduced before a game against Utah.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The selflessness of a backup catcher signals the health of UCLA’s overall culture built on each player finding value in her role. Focused on returning to the sport’s biggest stage, the Bruins talk as much about their clubhouse culture as their on-field technique.

After every practice, the team meets to give individuals credit for a job well done. The players single one another out for specific acts that day. Social media highlights won’t go viral for an expertly framed bullpen pitch from Sullivan or when Rusconi Vicinanza perfectly scouted a pitch sequence, but the team-wide recognition is enough to reinforce the importance of everyone’s role.

“I want to play, I want to be the starter, X, Y, Z,” Rusconi Vicinanza said. “But you have to realize that your ability to buy in to whatever the team needs you to do and put your own needs aside is what’s going to make us get back to OKC.”

If the Bruins return to USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium, Faraimo would have her long-awaited World Series debut in the circle. Shaw would experience the postseason for the first time. Shortstop Briana Perez, UCLA’s newly minted leader in career runs scored, would anchor the middle infield as she has for five consecutive seasons.

Rusconi Vicinanza and Sullivan will watch from the dugout, clipboards and catching gear at the ready, prepared to jump in the way of anything that comes toward their teammates.