Driving along I-10 into Cathedral City, California, softball fans en route to the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic saw a billboard.
It was an advertisement for the tournament, but it didn’t feature Team USA pitchers Monica Abbott or Rachel Garcia – both of whom have racked up their fair share of hardware over the years. Rather, it was UCLA sophomore pitcher Megan Faraimo shouting in jubilation, presumably after one of her 94 strikeouts on the season – the second most in the country.
To start this season, Faraimo has easily moved into the ace position for No. 1 UCLA softball’s (15-0) pitching staff after the departure of Garcia to the U.S. Olympic Softball Team, earning every Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week honor since the start of the season for her 9-0 record and 0.73 ERA. After Faraimo, however, the strength of the pitching rotation is unproven.
Faraimo continued being UCLA’s workhorse this weekend during the Bruins’ five-game road trip to Cathedral City. She toed the rubber in four appearances over three consecutive days – including 13 2/3 innings Saturday in the Bruins’ doubleheader against Wisconsin and No. 6 Florida – racking up 39 strikeouts over 25 innings and three wins in the process.
Faraimo – an invitee to the Olympic team tryouts in the summer – preserved a 3-2 lead against Team USA in an exhibition game into the bottom of the fifth inning Sunday. It was the first time Team USA had trailed an opponent in its Stand Beside Her Tour exhibitions.
According to coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, Faraimo’s advanced cardio workouts with assistant coach Lisa Fernandez have already paid dividends, and will likely continue to do so into the postseason.
However, not even the most intense Fernandez conditioning regimen can prepare the sophomore pitcher to pitch in each of the Bruins’ remaining 38 regular-season games, and UCLA needs a secondary pitcher to take over a game for a potentially fatigued Faraimo.
Finding someone to fit into the role Faraimo had as last year’s No. 2 behind Garcia has been the one area of concern in UCLA’s undefeated start to its season. UCLA will need to find someone to fill the No. 2 role again this time around.
Then-sophomore pitcher Holly Azevedo rounded out last year’s national championship rotation with an ERA of 2.12 in 89 innings pitched. She has opened the 2020 season as the No. 2 with a perfect 5-0 record and a 1.06 ERA.
However, Azevedo has only faced three Power Five conference opponents and was knocked around for three hits in an inning-and-a-third of work against Florida and six hits, including a longball against the Auburn.
Freshman pitcher Lexi Sosa has not been used extensively so far and has posted a 4.20 ERA and 1.80 WHIP with only one win in her first four games in blue and gold.
Opponents of the 2019 UCLA national championship team faced the two-headed beast of Garcia and Faraimo. Garcia was a 29-game winner and ended the season with 286 strikeouts and a 1.14 ERA – the lowest among Power Five conference pitchers with a minimum of 100 innings pitched. And when Garcia was on her rest days, Faraimo stepped in and led the Bruins to 16 wins, finishing with a top-20 ERA of 1.41 as well.
Garcia pitched 202 innings on the season, while Faraimo and Azevedo pitched 114 and 89 innings, respectively. Faraimo has proven she is capable of taking on that workload, having pitched around 61% of the innings so far this season, which will be essential for the Bruins as the season progresses.
But for the Bruins to make another deep playoff run, Azevedo or Sosa will need to prove themselves as a viable option when Faraimo has to come out, and neither has shown that potential yet. Azevedo needs to continue making strides against worthy competition in her junior year, and Sosa must fully adjust to collegiate softball.
UCLA saw the effects of a burnt-out ace in the 2018 NCAA Women’s College World Series, in which Garcia allowed five runs off 11 hits to Florida State in two games to end the Bruins’ season.
While Faraimo cannot be the only arm in the Bruins’ rotation during the regular season grind, there’s proof of a UCLA pitcher taking control of the UCLA’s playoff destiny just one year ago.
Faraimo could follow in the footsteps of Garcia, pitching in five straight games en route to a championship and earning an ESPY nomination in the process.
But for UCLA to boost its chance at another run to Oklahoma City, it will need to find a reliable arm deeper in the rotation.