Rachel Garcia has the third-best ERA among AU pitchers this season. (Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

For the first time in Athletes Unlimited Softball history, it’s unlikely that a pitcher will be crowned champion.

In 2020, veteran pitcher Cat Osterman ran away with the inaugural AU trophy. The next year, right-hander Aleshia Ocasio won it by over 300 points. And in June’s shortened AUX season, Danielle O’Toole edged out fellow pitcher Rachel Garcia for the title.

O’Toole has put up a good fight during the league’s third season, currently in fifth place with 1,226 points, 236 points shy of the leader, catcher Dejah Mulipolah. Alyssa Denham, in third place with 1,316 points, is the only other pitcher in the top 10. Infielder Amanda Chidester (second, 1,364 points) and outfielder Haylie McCleney (fourth, 1,316 points) are the next-closest to first with one week remaining in the season.

Each season, in addition to a Defender of the Year award, AU names just one champion based on who finishes atop the leaderboard. But for most of the athletes, Athletes Unlimited has always been about more than the hardware. It’s an opportunity for them to compete with some of the top players in their sport and continue their softball careers.

Garcia is in her first year with Athletes Unlimited. The pitcher took last year off after winning a silver medal with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. Though she’s currently in 26th with 962 points and off pace for the title, she’s been one of the best pitchers to step into the circle this season. Her 3.00 ERA through 39 innings is third-best among pitchers with over 30 innings pitched, behind O’Toole’s 3.03 ERA through 34 IP and Denham’s 1.62 ERA through 34 IP.

“You’re facing the best hitters in the nation,” Garcia told Just Women’s Sports. “You’re facing people who are veterans of the game, so you have to be a little bit more smart. It’s more like a mind game at this point. I came out during AUX only throwing two pitches and being able to get away with it. Now I’m out here and I had to put other pitches into my arsenal.”

While her pitching has kept her competitive in the standings this season, Garcia says she’s more focused on other areas of the game, like her pitch count. The leaderboard, in fact, has been the last thing on her mind.

“I want my team to win. That’s what’s important to me,” she said. “I don’t personally like to look at the leaderboard. I like to look more at my pitching, how it’s rolling … because I feel like, for me as a person, [the leaderboard is] something that I think is more of a distraction than anything.”

Many of AU’s athletes are still trying to learn the rules of accumulating individual points and applying them to their performances.

Players can earn points for every element of the game, with a base of 10 points for plays like a single, a stolen base and a drawn walk. Doubles amount to 20 points, triples 30 and home runs 40. Points can also be lost, such as when a player gets caught stealing. Pitchers earn four points for each out and lose 10 for each run allowed.

Players also earn 10 points for each inning won and 50 points for a game victory. MVP points are also up for grabs among those who have standout performances.

“I feel like each week it’s just a different challenge. You kind of learn the game in a different way,” shortstop Sydney Romero said of the points system.

“Being able to pay attention to [the individual points] and winning each inning — really taking the game inning by inning because each inning literally matters — has helped me personally because you have to pay attention literally to each inning, and you can’t miss a beat in between.”

“You pay more attention to detail,” added infielder Sierra Romero, Sydney’s sister. “So even if your team is losing, you’re thinking, ‘OK, as a team, how can we win this inning to get everybody points?’ You’re still thinking about the team aspect of it. Every single inning matters, and what’s cool is even if you are losing right now, if we can win this inning, we got ourselves some points, and we might even take the lead.”

Sydney Romero, in 21st place entering the final three games of the AU season, didn’t always have an optimistic perspective of the leaderboard. Coming from a standout career at Oklahoma, where she won two College World Series, and the National Pro Fastpitch league, she had to learn how to approach the new rules in her two years with AU.

“Last year, I could not look at the point system. It would drive me nuts knowing where I was at on the leaderboard,” she said. “But this year, I actually like to pay attention to it and look at it because I feel like I have a better understanding. And it doesn’t make me that mad anymore.”

Of course, Sydney says she still wants to compete and move up the leaderboard, though her sentiment isn’t shared across the league. Sierra, for one, has a laser focus on winning each time she steps onto the field.

“I might know the basic stuff, but I couldn’t tell you where anybody’s at on the leaderboard ever,” she said. “I am a perfectionist [about hitting], but for me I’ve just noticed that not paying attention to the leaderboard has helped me and I’m just focusing on winning games. I think the one time I looked at it was last year when Sydney showed me.”

AU’s first-ever champion took a holistic approach from the start. Osterman has since retired, but her message continues to resonate with current players.

“At the end of the day, does [our performance] make or break where we end in the standings? Yes,” the softball legend said last year of the Athletes Unlimited leaderboard. “But does it make or break our careers? No, not at all.”

Emma Hruby is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @EHruby.