Bears fall in series finale, but win Pac-12 title

Valerie Arioto made a stronger case for being named national player of the year this weekend, as she hit a walk-off 2-run homer in Thursday's win. The Bears host NCAA regionals starting Friday.
Anna Vignet/File
Valerie Arioto made a stronger case for being named national player of the year this weekend, as she hit a walk-off 2-run homer in Thursday's win. The Bears host NCAA regionals starting Friday.

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Despite having no stakes on the line, Saturday’s regular season finale between the No. 1 Cal softball team and No. 2 Arizona State featured two of the best pitchers in the Pac-12.

After clinching the conference title against the Sun Devils with a 5-0 victory on Friday, the Bears (50-4, 21-3 in the Pac-12) lost by the same scoreline on Saturday. Bears pitcher Jolene Henderson — who lost her second game of the season — was outmatched by flamethrower Dallas Escobedo, who completed the game with no earned runs and ten strikeouts.

Henderson also pitched a complete game, but she allowed 11 hits and had only three strikeouts. After allowing a two-run double in the second inning, Henderson kept the score close until her tired arm allowed a three-run seventh inning that closed any chances for a comeback.

The Bears offense managed to get runners in scoring position several times, but those chances materialized to no runs. Cal’s five seniors, who all started as a senior sendoff, accounted for four of the six Cal hits. But none ever threatened Escobedo and the Sun Devils (46-7, 18-4).

Senior slugger Valerie Arioto, who capped the regular season with a .390 average and 22 home runs, went hitless off Escobedo. Her best at-bat came in the fifth inning, a soaring fly ball that landed softly in left fielder Talor Haro’s glove.

Defensively, the Bears committed two errors, both by shortstop Cheyenne Cordes. The second error — a throwing error in the seventh inning that sent runner Elizabeth Caporuscio from second to third — allowed the fifth run in for Arizona State.

“We didn’t do our jobs today,” said Cal coach Diane Ninemire. “Teams with timely hits and fewest errors win the games.”

Despite coming out flat on Saturday, the overall series was a huge success. By winning two of the three tilts, the Bears clinched the series, the conference, and the No. 1 national ranking.

Thursday’s opener between Cal and Arizona State lived up to its pre-series hype. The Bears were heading into the bottom of the sixth down 2-0 against Escobedo, but the hurler’s tired arm ultimately gave out. With the bases loaded and two outs, Escobedo walked Danielle Henderson and Victoria Jones to tie the score.

Then in the seventh inning, Arioto completed the Cal comeback with a two-run, walk-off home run to seal the 4-2 victory.

With one victory remaining between the Bears and their first outright conference title since 1987, Arioto stepped onto the mound the next day as the starting pitcher. The senior was unstoppable, pitching a complete game shutout with 11 strikeouts. Behind Danielle Henderson and Elia Reid’s bats, Cal soundly defeated Arizona State, 5-0.

For the first time in Ninemire’s 25-year coaching career at Cal, the Bears finished with a 50-win season and an uncontested Pac-12 title. But despite reaching greater heights than any other softball team in program history, Cal never let any of the pressure seep into the locker room before and during the series.

“There was no mention of winning the Pac-12 title in our talks after winning (Friday’s) match,” Ninemire said. “We were now looking ahead to the postseason.”

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