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Candid Carlson: Lack of offensive power may force UCLA softball out of NCAA tournament

Members of UCLA softball stand in a line facing the infield before a game against Utah on May 1. After being shut out thrice this season, the Bruins earned the No. 5 seed in the 2022 NCAA tournament, their lowest seeding in five years. (Joseph Jimenez/Daily Bruin)

By Gavin Carlson

May 22, 2022 11:36 p.m.

Defense wins championships.

It’s one of the oldest sayings in sports.

Yet if something holds the Bruins back from winning their 13th national championship, it won’t be their defense.

UCLA softball finished the regular season with the second-best ERA in the nation, and its ace – redshirt junior pitcher Megan Faraimo – was named Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year. If you told that to the average softball fan, they’d assume either the blue and gold ran through its schedule en route to a conference title or Faraimo had no help from the rest of the pitching staff.

Somehow, neither is the case.

Graduate student Lauren Shaw and redshirt senior Holly Azevedo were actually the Bruins’ best pitchers in terms of ERA. Not only were they better than the conference’s pitcher of the year, but they also had the two lowest ERAs in the entire Pac-12.

(Left to right: David Rimer/Assistant Photo editor, Patrick Shao/Daily Bruin, Joseph Jimenez/Daily Bruin)
Redshirt senior Holly Azevedo, graduate student Lauren Shaw and redshirt junior Megan Faraimo throw pitches. The trio of pitchers helped guide UCLA softball to the second-best ERA in the country. (Left to right: David Rimer/Assistant Photo editor, Patrick Shao/Daily Bruin, Joseph Jimenez/Daily Bruin)

As a whole, the trio had the three lowest opposing batting averages in the conference, with each bringing a different pitching style to the circle.

Faraimo has the most electrifying stuff, as her overpowering fastball combined with a rise ball and off-speed pitches guided her to 252 strikeouts, 60 more than any other Pac-12 pitcher this season.

Azevedo’s success has been more strictly based around her changeup-fastball combination. She rode that two-pitch punch to a 1.15 ERA and a pair of no-hitters.

Shaw brings a different dimension to the pitching staff as UCLA’s first left-hander since 2017. She’s thrived in the role by holding lefties to a 0.099 batting average while ranking fourth in the nation with a 0.89 ERA.

The blue and gold also might have the best overall defender in collegiate softball in Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and three-time All-American Briana Perez. The redshirt senior is about as good as it gets at the shortstop position.

(Joseph Jimenez/Daily Bruin)
Redshirt senior shortstop Briana Perez tracks down a ball in a game. Perez was named the 2022 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. (Joseph Jimenez/Daily Bruin)

Sounds like the perfect setup for a conference title and deep run to the Women’s College World Series final.

But the Bruins didn’t earn even a share of the Pac-12 championship this season and settled for the NCAA tournament’s No. 5 seed – their lowest seeding in five years.

A second-place conference finish and top-five overall ranking is nothing to scoff at, but this is UCLA softball, the greatest program in the history of the sport. Expectations are ridiculously high in Westwood, and any season that doesn’t end in a trip to the WCWS final is seen by many as a disappointment.

So what’s holding them back?

“It’s been a little challenging in that we haven’t had consistency in the lineup,” said coach Kelly Inouye-Perez just days prior to Friday’s NCAA regional matchup against Grand Canyon.

Although UCLA’s offense ranks in the top 18 nationally in batting average, slugging percentage and scoring, it’s absent from the top 10 in each of those respective categories.

The offense is certainly good, but right now, it’s not elite enough to win a national championship.

A lack of explosiveness is partially why, as the blue and gold’s 1.04 home runs per game ranks 45th in the nation. The long ball can bail out poor team hitting performances, but the Bruins haven’t had that luxury.

Of the top eight teams hosting regionals in the NCAA tournament, UCLA is one of three that have been shut out at least three times this season. Of those three, the Bruins are the only team to be shut out in consecutive games by the same opponent.

Back in April, UCLA suffered back-to-back 1-0 defeats to Stanford, the first time its offense was shut out in consecutive games since the 2013 season. That was the last campaign to end without the blue and gold hosting a regional and without a trip to Super Regionals. Concerning.

On May 1, UCLA was shut out at Easton Stadium by Utah and suffered a mercy-rule defeat for the first time since 2017. Also concerning.

It may seem like nitpicking, but once again, this is UCLA softball.

If the Bruins had mustered a pair of long balls or even a single two-run shot in those losses to the Cardinal, we’d be talking about a Pac-12 championship and top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. Instead, we’re left wondering if UCLA has enough offensive firepower to hang with the Oklahomas of the world.

Something tells me the Bruins have it in them, but the question is whether we’ll see it against the best of the best.

(Jeremy Chen/Daily Bruin staff)
Redshirt senior infielder Delanie Wisz rounds third base in a game. Wisz tallied a .396 batting average during the regular season. (Jeremy Chen/Daily Bruin staff)

Redshirt senior infielder Delanie Wisz has stepped up tremendously to make up for the absence of redshirt senior outfielder and two-time first team All-American Aaliyah Jordan. Perez continues to be a two-way superstar, and the supporting cast of redshirt sophomore utility Maya Brady, redshirt senior infielder Kinsley Washington and freshman utility Savannah Pola is certainly capable of championship-level hitting.

So don’t get me wrong, a magical championship run similar to that of 2019 can certainly happen. I would not be shocked.

But three months after suffering a 4-1 loss to Oklahoma – the top seed in this year’s tournament – UCLA appears to be in the same place it was in February: elite, but not better than the best.

And its offense is the reason why.

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Gavin Carlson | Sports staff
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
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