No. 1 Cal hosts lowly Santa Clara

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Although the No. 1 Cal softball team will technically “prepare” to take on 8-36 Santa Clara, no serious spectator of the sport would seriously believe the Broncos stand a chance for Wednesday’s 3 p.m. game at Levine-Fricke Field.

The Bears (39-2, 11-1 in the Pac-12) own a 72-0 series advantage over Santa Clara. The Broncos’ staff ERA of 6.37 is more than six times higher than that of Cal’s. Santa Clara has been blown out by multiple mid-majors. Cal has mercy-ruled every mid-major opponent they’ve faced at home.

In other words, if you are anticipating a competitive contest, you will be sorely mistaken.

With the outcome essentially already in the books, the inherent interest of this specific game certainly lags behind that of an intense conference matchup, like the Bears will see with their face-off with Oregon this weekend. But the presence of a once-in-a-generation superstar playing one of her last games as a Bear should be more than enough to encourage attendance.

Valerie Arioto is concluding her magnificent career with one of the greatest seasons in recent memory. The redshirt senior, who took off all of last year with a leg injury, is absolutely destroying college softball this year. Her .629 OBP ranks second of all hitters in softball and her 19 home runs ranks third. She is hitting .412 with a 1.087 slugging percentage, which also ranks third in college softball. Arioto’s mere presence in the middle of the Cal lineup is enough to scare pitchers, who have walked Arioto 55 times, by far the most in softball.

Looking solely at her offensive numbers, Arioto ranks without a doubt among the best three hitters in softball this year based on statistics alone. Factor in that she has been the slugger of the No. 1 ranked team in the country, and it makes the numbers seem even more ridiculous.

But hitting isn’t the only thing Arioto does for the Bears. On days when ace Jolene Henderson needs a rest, Arioto has compiled an 18-1 record pitching, with a 1.30 ERA. Her wins and ERA rank among the top 40 in college softball in both categories. Her winning percentage ranks among the top 10.

Not only has Arioto been arguably the best hitter in the country, she is among the best pitchers as well.

The rapid turnaround in recovery was far from a guarantee. Arioto had suffered a serious injury, and physical therapy doesn’t always fix the problem perfectly. But with a strict regimen and strong commitment to her rehabilitation, Arioto was able to make a full strength recovery for the season.

“My trainer was really on me and worked with me to get the fastest recovery I could,” Arioto said. “I did a lot of one-legged swinging. Odd stuff.”

In fact, Arioto has come back stronger than ever. Her home run total already matches her career high, and her batting average is 60 points higher than it’s ever been. Asked to share her adjustment heading into her senior season, Arioto cited her increased focus and calmness when stepping into the batter’s box.

“In past years, I was a really anxious person, so it kinda translated to my hitting,” Arioto said. “One thing I learned in my off time is that the most successful people are the most calm. So I’ve tried to adopt that approach.”

As Arioto calmly steps up to bat for the first time on Wednesday, the Broncos’ starter will no doubt be shivering in her boots.