All-American pitching matchup key to Oklahoma-UCLA series

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An elite pitching matchup between UCLA’s Rachel Garcia and Oklahoma’s Giselle “G” Juarez will play a major role in determining which team wins the Women’s College World Series.

Both were first-team National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Americans, and Garcia repeated as USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. Their teams open a best-of-three championship series on Monday night.

Garcia did it all on Sunday to get the Bruins (54-6) to the championship series. She threw 179 pitches and struck out 16, then hit the walk-off homer in a 3-0 victory over Washington.

“We were watching her today, not just kind of handle her stuff on the mound, get out of big innings, but she also hit the walk-off,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. “You don’t find athletes like that. Maybe once in a blue moon. To watch her do her work — she is the National Player of the Year.”

Garcia, a member of the USA senior national team, has a 27-1 record with a 1.03 ERA.

Juarez was a driving force behind Oklahoma’s 41-game win streak earlier in the season, the longest ever for a Division I team in a single season. The transfer from Arizona State and member of Puerto Rico’s national program helped Oklahoma (57-4) earn the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

She has settled in since transferring. She has a 28-2 record with a 1.16 ERA and 259 strikeouts in 175 2/3 innings.

TOP SEEDS

This is the first time since 2005 that the top two seeds reached the finals. That year, No. 1 seed Michigan defeated UCLA in three games for the title in the first year of the best-of-three format. Oklahoma leads the nation in batting average, ERA, slugging percentage, fielding percentage and home runs per game. UCLA ranks third in hitting, second in earned run average and fifth in scoring.

OKLAHOMERS

Oklahoma has set a Division I record with 111 home runs this season. Sydney Romero, a finalist for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, leads the team with 19 home runs from the leadoff spot. First-team All-American second baseman Caleigh Clifton has 17 homers and freshman Grace Green has 16. Jocelyn Alo, Oklahoma’s sophomore right fielder hit a home run that traveled more than 300 feet to help ignite Sunday’s win over Alabama. She has 16 homers this season and 46 in her career.

BALANCED BRUINS

The Bruins rank third nationally in batting average, and most of the lineup is hitting better than .300 this season. Freshman Kelli Godin leads the way with a .427 average. Bubba Nickles, an second-team All-American centerfielder, is hitting .389 with 17 home runs. Briana Perez is hitting .383, Taylor Pack .377, Aaliyah Jordan .374, Garcia .345 and Kinsley Washington .300.

DYNASTIES

UCLA and Oklahoma have two of the great dynasties in softball history. UCLA’s entire history was a dynasty for decades. The Bruins won 12 national titles from 1982 to 2010. This is UCLA’s first trip to the championship series since that 2010 title. Getting UCLA back to this level was a motivating force for the players.

“It’s amazing,” Nickles said after Sunday’s win over Washington. “We feel so good right now. But we’re not done yet. We have a lot that we want to accomplish still.”

Oklahoma seeks its third title in four years and its fourth of the decade. The run comes as softball achieves more parity and more teams are competing than in past generations. Oklahoma’s four championships rank third all-time behind UCLA and Arizona.

ARMS RACE

The star pitchers are critical, but other arms can decide a champion, especially if the series goes three games. Oklahoma’s Mariah Lopez got the win on Sunday night against Alabama to get the Sooners to the championship series. She has a 19-1 record and has pitched 116 1/3 innings this season. Shannon Saile, who has seen action during the World Series, is a hard thrower with 126 strikeouts in 78 innings.

“I think the amazing thing about this staff is any of us can be starters, any of us can be relief,” Juarez said.

Garcia has thrown every pitch for UCLA at the World Series. Megan Faraimo has a 16-4 record with a 1.42 ERA. She has 143 strikeouts in 113 innings. Holly Azevedo has an 11-1 record with a 2.07 ERA.

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