Epic battle brewing for Pac-12 title
Cal, Arizona St. have three-game series to settle fight for crown
The players are ready. Fans have been talking about it for weeks, months even. Now the time has come to see who’s the best.
In a scenario that rarely materializes so perfectly, No. 1 California (48-3 overall, 19-2 in Pac-12) is playing host to No. 2 Arizona State (45-5, 17-2) Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the regular-season finale at Levine-Fricke Field in Berkeley, Calif. It’s a series that will determine the Pac-12 Conference title, as the first to two wins takes the crown. Cal has only won one Pac-10 or Pac-12 title outright, with that coming in 1987. Arizona State has two league titles overall, both since 2008.
It’s only fitting the nation’s top league for the past three decades would give fans such an impressive segue into the postseason.
“I think it’s elite softball. It’s the best of the best, two top teams going at it,” Arizona State senior pitcher Hillary Bach said. “We both have great expectations of ourselves, but that’s the way we are. It’s just going to be a good matchup. I can’t believe it’s not on TV. I’d want to watch it over and over again. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Fans around the country would love to see it too considering how evenly matched the squads are.
First there is ASU, the defending champion. The Sun Devils opened the year as the preseason No. 1 but stumbled almost immediately, losing two of their first six games out of the gate.
Since then? They’ve won 42 of their last 45 contests and currently rank second nationally in scoring (7.58 runs per game) and slugging percentage (.591) and fourth in batting average (.346).
“I would say that this team is very unpredictable,” Bach said. “I didn’t really know what to expect [coming into the year]. We had some ups and downs and we’ve come together really nicely at some points. But right now we’re feeling good. It’s just exciting and I’m looking forward to seeing what to expect next.”
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What she can expect is facing a team that is nearly a mirror image of her own Sun Devils.
The Golden Bears are the only team in the nation that rank in the top 10 in both batting average (9th, .321) and ERA (3rd, 1.22). They have a pair of double-figure win streaks this year, including opening the season with 23 consecutive victories.
Both sides have a pair of pitchers who would be the dominant No. 1 on almost any other squad. ASU has the senior Bach and sophomore Dallas Escobedo, while Cal counters with senior Arioto – who also is one of the most feared hitters in the nation – and junior Jolene Henderson.
Bach is 19-0 with a 1.45 ERA this season. She hasn’t been charged with a loss since a setback in the Gainesville Super Regional in 2010, a streak of 29 consecutive victories. Escobedo, who was the Most Outstanding Player as a freshman in the 2011 WCWS, is 19-4. Her ERA is 2.59 with 163 strikeouts in 145.2 innings.
Arioto redshirted last season with a leg injury and had to watch as the Bears rode Henderson’s arm to Oklahoma City and the WCWS. This season, Arioto is 19-2 in the circle with a 1.29 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 119.2 innings. Henderson is sixth nationally with 29 wins against one loss and has a 1.10 ERA to rank seventh. Her 235 strikeouts are also in the top 25.
It’s the type of situation that has the competitive juices flowing on both sides. And to say the players are excited for the chance would be an understatement according to Bach.
“I’m so excited, and I think we all are,” Bach said. “I know Cal is a great program, they’re not ranked No. 1 for no reason. I know they have a great pitching staff. They are in the Pac-12 so they’re going to be true competitors. Every Pac-12 matchup is a dog fight, from 1 to 9. It’s going to be a great game. I’m really looking forward to a high level of competition.”
The pitchers are saying that now, but will they carry the same tune in four days after facing those fierce lineups?
Arioto also leads the Cal offense. She’s hitting .398 with 51 RBI while ranking in the top 10 in the country in HR (4th, 21), slugging percentage (3rd, 1.009)and on-base percentage (2nd, .626).
A self-professed “over-anxious” and emotional player, her gaudy on-base percentage comes from new-found patience after sitting out last year. The result has been impressive as she leads the country with 69 walks and is one of just two players with more than 51 entering the week.
“Playing with emotion and heart, that’s not a bad thing, but I kind of looked at it with a different perspective while I was out,” Arioto said. “I learned to play with heart but with patience as well. I think that was the biggest thing that I learned from sitting out that one year.”
Her maturity has also come as a result of being able to put herself in the opposing pitcher's shoes, almost literally.
"I think pitching actually helps me as a hitter becuase I know the mindset of a pitcher," Arioto said. "A lot of people think a pitcher shouldn't hit, but I think it honestly helps me as a hitter. As a pitcher, I know how I want to get ahead in the count, and as a hitter I know the pitcher wants that. Just having the mindset of a pitcher while being a hitter definitely helps me in hitting."
Arioto’s comparison on the ASU offense is easy: shortstop Katelyn Boyd. The pair will likely be finalists for national player-of-the-year honors with their prolific numbers. And Boyd’s holds up favorably to Arioto and anyone else in the country.
Entering the week, Boyd was fifth in the country in batting average at a sizzling .458 while also ranking in the top 15 in doubles home runs (19), RBI (58), slugging percentage (.979), on-base percentage (.589) and walks (43). She’s hitting better than .380 in her four-year career and last week set the school record with her 56th double.
“I think Katelyn Boyd is one of a kind. She’s so overpowering every year, she’s such a stud,” Bach said. “Just wise beyond her years, she’s very calm. We never see her get too up or too down. She stays really consistent. Mentally, one of the toughest athletes I’ve ever played with. She’s really good at understanding the game, she’s a great student of the game. She’s put so many hours into that I think we all really respect her for her incredible work ethic.”
Boyd has also helped Arizona State rank sixth nationally in fielding percentage (.976) this season. And California? It’s second at .980.
The comparisons between the teams just go on and on, but one will have to come out ahead in the end. And it will own the 2012 Pac-12 title and the right to say it’s the best team in the best league.