Originally Published: April 4, 2012

Cal's Arioto is back and better than ever

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

In her first at-bat of the season and her first in a college game in a year and a half, Valerie Arioto hit a 3-1 pitch for a home run. Two innings later, in her second stint in the batter's box, the Cal senior let a 3-1 pitch go by for a walk. In her third plate appearance, she hit her second home run of the game.

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Courtesy of Graham HaysCal's Val Arioto is carrying on the Pac-12's proud tradition of dual-threat players.

Mind you, all of this came against a Tennessee team still ranked in the top 10.

Right then and there, on Feb. 10, pitchers nationwide might as well have waved the white flag of surrender.

At some point this weekend, the college softball season will hit the exact midpoint between opening day and the final day of the Women's College World Series (although there's no truth to the rumor that if you stand on egg on its end at the precise moment of the midpoint, the egg will remain standing). No team has done more to cement its place as a championship favorite than top-ranked California, and the player at the center of it is a carefree, perpetually smiling fifth-year senior putting together one of the most statistically dominant seasons the sport has seen in a long time.

Entering this week's conference series at Utah, Arioto is hitting .434 with 15 home runs, 45 RBIs and a 1.738 OPS, the product of a 1.092 slugging percentage and borderline ridiculous .646 on-base percentage. If ranking second in the nation in on-base percentage and third in slugging percentage for the best team in the land wasn't enough to clinch USA Softball Player of the Year honors, Arioto also happens to be 15-0 with a 1.03 ERA in 15 starts in the pitching circle, one half of a lockdown pitching duo with Jolene Henderson.

The former Pac-10 produced some impressive dual threats in recent seasons, namely Washington's Danielle Lawrie and UCLA's Megan Langenfeld, but Arioto's numbers might be the best of them all.

The Bears were at it again last weekend, sweeping three games from No. 3 Washington, and Arioto was up to her normal business. In the first two games of the series, she registered just two official at-bats while piling up six walks (she also struck out nine in a complete-game win from the circle in the second game). Thanks to a Cal lineup that is much deeper than last season's World Series entrant, pitching around her did not work out for Washington. As such, the Huskies gave Arioto something to hit in the finale and she obliged with her 15th home run of the season and drove in two runs.

After missing all of the 2011 season with a foot injury, Arioto has returned a better hitter than ever.

"She's become more disciplined at the plate and more picky at the type of pitches she's willing to swing at," Cal coach Diane Ninemire said. "She knows her strength in which pitch she hits the best, and she's not willing to give in unless she absolutely has to. She's really a hitter that a pitcher would not like to pitch to very much."

What must be all the more maddening for opponents is that unlike Lawrie and Langenfeld, each a face mask shy of middle linebacker on the intensity scale, Arioto seems to have so much, well, fun when she's making foes miserable. Sure, the grin may recede as she stares in at a batter or locks in on a pitcher, but after a year away, she takes her craft more seriously than she seems to take herself.

"It really hit me hard," Arioto said of sitting out last season. "I didn't know, really, how to react to it. But I think with all the great support that I had, with my teammates, my family, the trainers, the coaching staff, it kind of turned a negative into a positive for me. When I came back, I still had the love for the game and the want to play.

"I think that's really why I'm so happy on the field is I want to play and I love to play."

When Ninemire talks about Arioto becoming a more patient hitter, it's worth noting that the player in question walked 48 times and posted a .444 on-base percentage as a freshman. Maturation is one thing, but vision and quick hands are gifts that can be honed but not created. So far this season, she's walked 47 times and struck out just 11 times (she struck out 51 times as a freshman). With proven hitters like Jace Williams and emerging freshman standouts like Breana Kostreba, Cheyenne Cordes and Danielle Henderson behind her, pitching around Arioto hardly gets pitchers out of trouble.

But she isn't going to do them any favors by expanding the most expertly managed strike zone in the country.

"I think my year sitting out has kind of put a new perspective on hitting for me," Arioto said. "In past years, I'm very energetic and anxious and kind of emotional, so my year off, I kind of realized a lot of great hitters are very patient, very poised. So I've been trying to do that with my hitting, so hopefully it's been paying off."

Those natural gifts and well-honed skills landed her on Team USA last summer, where she emerged as one of the most valuable run-producing hitters for the national team, an experience that also gave her plenty of live at-bats to work her way back into peak form after returning from injury. One of the players she replaced in the middle of the order for Team USA, as the veteran core of the team opted to focus on the domestic professional league, was Jessica Mendoza. And as politically incorrect as it may be for someone from Cal to laud a Stanford grad, it's Mendoza's swing that Arioto wants. And the results suggest she's coming close.

"It looks easy; that's where I'm trying to get with my swing," Arioto said. "It looks simple, it looks easy, effortless."

It's the exact opposite of the complicated, difficult and arduous task of getting her out. And unless people figure out how to keep her from circling the bases, one at a time or all at once, California is headed back to Oklahoma City for a longer stay this season.

Player of the year watch

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

Evelyn Carrillo, Ohio State
OSU Stock up: The sophomore first baseman has a knack for putting the ball in play -- she entered last weekend with just one walk and four strikeouts in 24 starts -- but a weekend series against the Spartans took that to a new level. Carrillo went 11-for-12 with eight RBIs in the three-game sweep, including a home run and a double.

Lauren Chamberlain, Oklahoma
OU Stock up: The freshman phenomenon hit a home run and drove in two in the finale of a three-game sweep against Kansas -- and that was the game she took it easy on the Jayhawks. Chamberlain hit two home runs in each of the first two games in the series and finished the series with five home runs and 10 RBIs. She's at 17 home runs and counting on the season, already just three shy of the program single-season record.

Kelly Majam, Hawaii
Hawaii Stock up: A familiar name from seasons past came up big for the Rainbow Wahine at New Mexico State. Majam had a home run and four RBIs as Hawaii swept three games from the Aggies. Hawaii had played just a single true road game prior to the trip but has just four more home games on its schedule. Majam's .247 batting average won't attract attention, but her .427 on-base percentage and .528 slugging are better measures of her production.

Jamia Reid, California
Cal Stock up: A team doesn't claim a place as the unanimous No. 1 in both major polls without some depth, so we pause from the usual routine of Valerie Arioto and Jolene Henderson trading turns in this space to talk about Reid. Cal's leadoff hitter was the only Bear to get a hit in all three games of a sweep against No. 3 Washington and finished the series with five hits, two runs scored, two stolen bases and two RBIs. She's fourth in the nation in stolen bases per game and one of only two players from power conferences in the top 10.

Kirsten Verdun, DePaul
DePaul Stock up: And then there were none. Louisville, the nation's last remaining unbeaten, dropped two of three games to DePaul, thanks largely to Verdun. The sophomore pitched a two-hit shutout to beat the Cardinals in the first game of the series and came back to win the rubber match with a three-hitter. She also provided all of her own run support in the opening 3-0 win with a three-run home run. For the season, Verdun has driven in more runs at the plate (29) than she's been charged with as earned runs in the circle (27).

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