Sharlize Palacios brings peace and passion to UCLA's Women's College World Series run

UCLA's Sharlize Palacios crosses home plate after hitting a homer against Stanford
UCLA's Sharlize Palacios celebrates with teammates after hitting a home run against Stanford on April 20. Palacios has played a leading role in the Bruins' quest for another NCAA title. (Eakin Howard / Getty Images)

This time, the adrenaline didn’t rush through Sharlize Palacios’ body. Stepping into the batter’s box with the bases loaded, down four runs to Arizona on Senior Day at Easton Stadium, the UCLA catcher didn’t feel stressed. She didn’t feel pressure as the Bruins were trying to mount a seven-run comeback. She felt at peace.

She felt her grandmother.

Inspired by her late grandmother Lori Barajas and strengthened by a tight-knit family, Palacios has led No. 6 UCLA back to the Women’s College World Series, where the Bruins will face three-time defending champion Oklahoma on Saturday at noon PST (ABC) at Oklahoma City’s Devon Park. The winner advances to Monday's national semifinals.

Read more: Why UCLA basketball star Gabriela Jaquez joined the Bruins' softball team

Starting with Palacios’ clutch grand slam against Arizona on April 28, UCLA (43-10) has won 14 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the country. When the ball smacked off Palacios’ bat, she immediately raised both arms over her head. When it flew over the fence, she turned her palms to the sky and tilted her head back.

“This whole season has been kind of my testimony,” Palacios said. “A lot of the times that I’ve been down and we’ve been behind, I literally feel my grandma when I’m playing.”

Barajas was a strong-willed woman, Palacios recalled. She was also “the sweetest lady.” She loved cooking for her family and hosting parties. She was too nervous to watch her grandchildren’s games live, but loved tuning in on TV as long as she knew they won. She was a devoted Christian.

When Barajas died near the beginning of the 2023 softball season at 78, Palacios lost her faith. She was already navigating life with a new program after transferring from Arizona, and to do it while grieving left her in “a weird spot,” Palacios said. Then she suffered a season-ending hand injury on April 22 against Arizona State.

"I felt a lot of guilt," Palacios said. "I wanted to help the team any way I could and I felt like I was helpless."

The Bruins racked up 52 regular-season wins, the most for the program since 2001, but didn’t win a postseason game. Shortstop Maya Brady, who played travel ball with Palacios since they were 12, noted how the dynamic shifted on the field without the three-time Pac-12 all-defensive team player.

Palacios was resigned to calling pitches from the dugout in an attempt to contribute. Off the field, she found solace in her family, which was back together in Southern California after the Chula Vista native had transferred to UCLA.

“She was meant to end her career at this program,” older sister Sashel said.

UCLA catcher Sharlize Palacios tags out Alabama's Kali Heivilin at the plate.
UCLA catcher Sharlize Palacios tags out Alabama's Kali Heivilin at the plate during the fifth inning of the Bruins' Women's College World Series win on Thursday. (Brandon Wade / Associated Press)

Palacios saved her best for her final season in college. Fueled by gratitude instilled from mental performance coach Armando Gonzalez, the four-time all-conference honoree was named a second-team All-American by the National Fastpitch Coaches Assn., her first All-American honor. She has a team-high 20 home runs and ranks second in RBIs with 57.

But as a guiding force for two underclassmen pitchers in their first postseasons, the 5-foot-6 catcher’s most valuable asset comes from beyond the stat sheet.

“Her biggest muscle is her heart,” UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. “It’s been a very intentional leadership [from] her to understand that she needs to be firm with her pitchers, but she also needs to be with them. … They love her, but they listen to her, and that’s called respect.”

Palacios learned the art of catching from her father Francisco, who passed it to all three of his kids. He played catcher and was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1992. Sashel represented Mexico at the Tokyo Olympics after starring at Arizona State. Youngest brother Sabian, who will graduate from high school in June and begin college at San Diego studying engineering, also played catcher in baseball.

Palacios had a brief flirtation with pitching, but after she asked her grandfather if she did well in her first game in the circle, he said, “You sucked.” She never pitched again.

Read more: Jordan Woolery's homer helps UCLA beat Alabama in Women's College World Series opener

Sitting in the team hotel in Oklahoma City, Palacios can laugh at the memory. From following her father and older sister, she knew she was meant to be a catcher. The family practiced together in the front yard, learning to appreciate the intricacies of the position that often are overshadowed. A catcher’s subtle blocked ball or well-timed break in play don’t show up in box scores. Instead it’s the pitchers who gets to write their name in the record books after a perfect game or the team that gets to hoist another trophy.

For Palacios, those rewards are more than enough.

“My flowers come from hearing the team do well, hearing my teammates doing well and especially the pitchers,” she said. “Whenever the pitchers get praise, it fills my cup for what I need.”

The catcher, Francisco always told his kids, is “the mom to the pitchers.”

From being the eager younger sibling following around Sashel, Palacios now fills the older sister role by inviting the pitchers on coffee runs to bond. In the circle, when she sees sophomore Taylor Tinsley or freshman Kaitlyn Terry getting sped up, she instructs them to take deep breaths. Even when Terry, a stone-faced freshman with an intense competitive streak, tries to shake off Palacios' timeout calls, the catcher can break through.

When Tinsley entered Thursday’s first-round game at the World Series, she quickly loaded the bases on a four-pitch walk in the fifth inning. Tinsley wasn’t nervous, Palacios knew, but the sophomore was spinning the ball so well in her first World Series appearance that it was spinning out of the zone. Palacios met with the pitcher in the circle.

Read more: How mental performance coach Armando Gonzalez helped UCLA softball find its edge

“It’s just me, you, and the glove,” Palacios said.

Tinsley got out of the jam with Alabama scoring only one run. Palacios connected with right fielder Megan Grant for a play at the plate to end the inning.

“She’s such a leader,” Tinsley said of Palacios before the World Series. “It’s honestly intimidating. If I was the other team, I’d be intimidated by just her presence behind the plate.”

Sashel, five years older than her sister, loves seeing Palacios in her element in her final college season. This season, with five dramatic comeback wins of four or more runs, feels “written in the stars,” Sashel said. After several heartbreaking plot twists, Palacios has put her trust in the script.

“A year later after being injured and losing our grandma, she has really matured and there's a sense of peace that she's playing with a lot of passion,” Sashel said. “But it's a very reassuring presence. There's no need to add more stress. She knows it's gonna get done.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.