Holly Azevedo seizes her moment, pitches UCLA into WCWS semifinals
OKLAHOMA CITY — For five years, Holly Azevedo has patiently waited her turn for her big moment in the Women's College World Series.
When the time came, she made it worth the while.
Azevedo tossed a two-hit shutout Sunday — her first career start in the WCWS — as No. 5 UCLA run-ruled No. 14 Florida, 8-0, to advance to the semifinals.
The fifth-year senior was super efficient, only needing 88 pitches to get through six innings. She pounded the strike zone and let her defense go to work, inducing 10 groundouts and eight fly outs. A lot of them weak contact.
UCLA's offense provided plenty of run support in return, with Delanie Wisz, Maya Brady, Kelli Godin, and Savannah Pola each driving in at least one run.
"It was really incredible, honestly," Azevedo said. "I couldn't do it without the people behind me. Our defense was really, really on point today, and obviously we had a really good outing with offense. So, super blessed, and it was a really cool win."
Head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez was beaming as Azevedo sat center stage in the postgame press conference.
"I've said this from the start, she's so selfless," Inouye-Perez said. "To be able to be behind Megan (Faraimo) and Rachel (Garcia) for her entire career and to come back, to choose to come back into the master's program to be able to get back, I'm so proud. She's a hard worker. She is very talented, but she's selfless. To come back and do this for her team says a lot. COVID was a negative for a lot of people, but it allowed for the opportunity for players that missed that season to be able to come back, and I'm grateful.
"Moments like this, we have been waiting for this, and she hasn't had that opportunity on this stage. So I couldn't be more proud and happy for her and for us that she pitched her game today."
Azevedo has been solid throughout her UCLA career, posting a 1.86 ERA over 432 innings. But she has mostly served as a tertiary option for the Bruins' talented pitching staff.
Garcia's graduation after last season opened the opportunity for Azevedo step into a more prominent role, and she has taken full advantage of it, logging her best season to date.
Azevedo has pitched a career-high 126 innings — more than double her total in 2021 — and Sunday's shutout lowered her ERA to 1.22.
"I give (pitching coach) Lisa Fernandez a ton of credit," Inouye-Perez said. "She really prepares these pitchers mentally, physically. They have this thing called champ camp, where they actually go through a full workout, and it's a grinding, challenging, physical workout before they pitch. And the whole talk is, when we get to Oklahoma, it's going to be hot. You've got to be able to compete under those circumstances, or we may be in a position where you have to play extra games. So there was that, the mental side.
"Then the physical part of it. If you could come to our practice and see the energy in the bullpen and the work ethic, and it's not just the pitchers and the starting catchers, but we have bullpen catchers that also are fully vested, and there's a whole process that goes into play.
"So they prepare for this moment. This language of being your best when your best is needed at the World Series started in fall. I'm so proud because they're very close, they work very hard, they're physically, mentally prepared to be able to execute their game. And I think the rest is just an athlete experience. I'm so proud for Holly to be able to do what Holly does."
Azevedo's teammates dumped ice water on her after the game as she interviewed with ESPN. A cool moment, literally and figuratively.
"Obviously losing a pitcher like Rachel, I think everyone thought what is UCLA going to do?" Brady said. "But little did they know we have Holly Azevedo and Lauren Shaw and Megan Faraimo. I'm just super proud to play with these pitchers because I know they're fighting. It gives you confidence as a hitter because that's a great offensive team. And when you have a pitcher like Holly shut them down as hitters, that kind of pumps you up. It was a really cool game to see Holly do her thing and shine on the biggest stage."
The only way to cool Holly Azevedo down today. 💦
— UCLA Softball (@UCLASoftball) June 5, 2022
Azevedo and company have their toughest task ahead of them — a No. 1-seeded Oklahoma team known for its explosive offense. Led by NCAA all-time home run leader Jocelyn Alo, the Sooners lead the nation in batting average and home runs. So far, they have outscored their opponents 20-4 in two WCWS games.
The Bruins will need to beat them twice to reach the best-of-three championship series and continue their pursuit of their 13th national championship.
"The whole message here at the World Series is it's really about us," Inouye-Perez said. "The biggest opponent we have is ourselves. In day one to be in the situation that we're in is we beat ourselves. We did not play great ball. We weren't out here. But I told them we also get the opportunity to play more games, and we're going to turn it into a positive because, if we can put ourselves in a position to play our game, the opponent, that is definitely respect. We respect everyone, we fear no one.
"So we've got to be able to come out and play our game at the end of the day, and if we do that, then it will be a great day of softball. That's all that we're focusing on right now."