You would be hard-pressed to find an Arizona softball player who benefitted more from the extended offseason than Sharlize Palacios. Her 2020 campaign was a rough one.
It started with a broken thumb and ended with a scary moment against UT Arlington in Alabama. The then-freshman catcher was involved in a violent collision at home plate and suffered a head/neck injury that left her hospitalized.
All she remembers from the play was the runner rounding third and the throw flying in from the outfield. After that?
“It was pretty much lights out,” she said. “Then I woke up in an ambulance.”
Palacios somehow avoided a major injury and was on the verge of returning to Arizona’s lineup when the coronavirus pandemic canceled the season a couple weeks later. A bummer, but not the worst thing in the world. She has a history of concussions and knows how tedious they can be.
“The brain is so sensitive and you can’t put a timeline on the recovery like a broken bone or something like that,” she said. “It’s all on you and I’m glad that I was able to recover fully and I feel 110 percent better. ... The timing (of the injury) was kind of unfortunate, but I like to remain positive as much as I can and stay optimistic, and I knew it was all in the plan and now I’m just taking advantage that I’m healthy.”
Palacios is off to a torrid start to the 2021 season, hitting .400 with two homers and 11 RBI in 10 games. It’s already an improvement from her freshman year when she hit .327 with one homer and seven RBI in 13 games.
Palacios said she has matured as a hitter, now taking her at-bats more seriously and being more selective at the plate. Her goal this season is to stay healthy and reclaim a starting spot.
So far, so good. She has started in all 10 games, serving as a powerful No. 6 hitter in one of the best lineups in the country.
“She has a really good plan once she walks up, she sticks with her plan, and she’s swinging at strikes and taking balls, which sounds simple but it’s really not,” head coach Mike Candrea said. “And I think just maturity. We always talk about that motor and usually freshmen, their motor runs almost off the track. As you play the game you learn how to control that and I think she’s definitely one that has some stability when she walks up to the plate.”
Palacios has made six starts at designated player and four behind the plate. Dejah Mulipola returning from Team USA means Palacios will have to wait a year before taking over as Arizona’s full-time catcher again.
She’s OK with that. Not everyone gets to pick the brain of an Olympian.
“It’s awesome. I’m like a sponge,” Palacios said. “I love learning new things and I love being able to see the way she sees the sport and go into the dugout and get some feedback from her every single inning. ... Her transfer is wicked fast. I mean, that’s what I’m trying to learn from her. I’m more of a catcher that throws from my knees, but I’d love to just put that in my arsenal and know how to have a quick transfer like her and just receive the ball the way she does.”
Palacios helps Mulipola, too. From 2017 to 2019, Mulipola caught 179 of Arizona’s 182 games. A massive workload. This year, because of how well Palacios has played, Mulipola has already been able to take four games off, starting those at DP.
Mulipola is hitting .444 with four homers and 18 RBI, so the platooning is clearly working. You can expect to see more of it as the season wears on, especially since the Pac-12 schedule includes Saturday doubleheaders this year.
“My big thing with Dejah is to keep her healthy and keep her fresh, and as a catcher the first thing that’s going to go is your legs,” Candrea said. “So it’s a great opportunity for us to keep them both fresh by alternating them or at least doubleheaders, being able to use both. But I have a lot of confidence in both of them. Both have strong arms, both are good receivers, and both are good offensively, so I always kind of look at it as a 1A and 1B.”
That’s not to say that switching between catcher and designated player is easy. The two positions couldn’t be more different. Catchers are involved in every pitch. DPs never see the field.
Not every player can go multiple innings without any action, then step into the batter’s box cold and deliver the big hit. Candrea said Palacios has been able to handle it because of her even-keeled approach.
“It’s a cool role because I get to really observe everyone’s at-bats and serve the defense and try to be like the ninth man in the dugout and just try to be the best teammate I can for them,” she said. “It helps me focus a lot more on my offense. That’s the only way I can help, so I really try to hone in on my at-bats and make them quality at-bats.”
Make no mistake about it, though: Palacios loves to catch. The position runs in her family. Her sister Sashel was a star backstop at Arizona State and now plays for the Mexican National Team. Her father Kiko was also a catcher and got drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1992.
“If you know Kiko, he’s a tough one, and she’s grown up being pushed, not pampered, and therefore that’s what you get,” Candrea said. “It’s not surprising that she bounces back very quickly from setbacks.”
When Palacios started at catcher against New Mexico on Feb. 19, it was her first time being behind the plate in a live game since she got knocked out last March.
There were some butterflies, but no fear.
“It was so awesome, it was like I just played my first collegiate game again,” she said. “My mom always tells me, ‘Why did you choose that position? You always get beat up!’ I mean, we’re the crazy ones but we love it. You can ask Izzy (Pacho) and Dejah. We love it and we love the torture.”