The Cal softball team is once again officially the best in the land.
After weeks of swinging between No. 2 and No. 3 in various national polls, the Bears finally asserted their dominance after this weekend’s sweep of No. 3 Washington, solidifying the No. 1 spot in both prominent national polls.
And Cal did not simply squeeze by No. 2 Alabama — in both the ESPN.com poll and the USA Today Poll, the Bears received every single first-place vote.
“This says a lot about the hard work our program has put in this year,” said senior first baseman and pitcher Valerie Arioto. “It’ll give us a little extra motivation. It may be a little more difficult with that target on our back, but we are up for the challenge.”
Cal hopes to carry the momentum of the ranking shift to the upcoming series against Utah, which begins Thursday at 3:00 p.m. at Ute Softball Field in Salt Lake City.
Like the Bears, the Utes also faced off against the Huskies, losing all three games in the Pac-12 opener by a combined margin of 11 runs. Utah only mustered a run a game on offense in that series as well.
Husky pitcher Kaitlin Inglesby rendered the Utes’ offensive attack impotent for the first game, striking out eight and allowing just six hits. Utah’s offensive frustration continued throughout the series, falling under the pressure of facing a world-class hurler.
The Utes have shown signs of strength throughout the season; during the preseason, Utah strung together 12 straight wins over a three week stretch.
But most of those games were against inferior teams, nowhere near the firepower of the Bears. The Washington series serves as a better measuring stick, and Utah appeared vastly overmatched.
Jolene Henderson and Arioto, Cal’s super duo of hurlers who both possess sub-1.00 ERAs and ridiculous win-loss records, are even better than the tandem Utah faced two weekends ago.
Utah’s best chance to beat the Bears lies in their ace hurler, Generra Nelson. Nelson is a strikeout machine, fanning 10.17 hitters per seven innings pitched. She possesses a 17-6 record, holding opposing batters to a measly .181 batting average against while maintaining a 1.35 ERA.
If Nelson can pitch around Arioto and handle the rest of the Bears’ lineup, the Utes may be able to force Cal into a pitcher’s duel, allowing a slight chance of victory.
But the chances are exactly that: slight. Cal simply has too much offensive firepower to be completely shut down. The Bears have scored at least eight runs 13 times this season.
In the middle of the lineup sits Arioto, who is hitting .434 with 15 home runs. Arguably even more impressive, she has put up that line despite walking 47 times, twice as many as any other Cal hitter. As long as Arioto is penciled into the three-hole, it will be difficult to prevent the Bears from piling up runs early.
And once Cal jumps out to an early lead, there may not be much the Utes can do.