Opposing teams have found a foolproof way in recent weeks to stop Cal softball slugger Valerie Arioto. They walk her.
Conference rival Washington decided to pitch to the Pac-12 Player of the Year in the NCAA super regionals on Saturday night, and Arioto blasted a two-run homer in the first inning that propelled the Bears to a 5-0 victory before a capacity crowd of 1,117 at Levine-Fricke Field.
"I'm glad they pitched to her," Cal coach Diane Ninemire said. "If you're going to pitch to her and she gets the pitch, you'll get what you saw tonight."
The top-seeded Bears (55-5) are now one victory away from their 12th trip to the College World Series. Cal and UW (39-18) meet Sunday at 4 p.m., with a third game, if necessary, at 6:30 p.m. The Huskies must win twice to earn the bid to the CWS, which starts Thursday in Oklahoma City.
The Huskies battled Cal in three tight games here early in the Pac-12 season, losing by a combined margin of five runs. This one wasn't close.
Senior Jolene Henderson (35-2) struck out 11 and allowed just four hits while posting her 16th shutout of the season. She escaped her only real jam by starting an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the fifth.
Arioto, who has set a Cal single-season record for home runs, had not gone deep in seven previous games, including five Berkeley regional contests last weekend. The drought is mostly the result of pitchers avoiding her. Over the previous 14 games, she had just two homers, but 27 walks.
The 16th-seeded Huskies, who won three times via shutout at the Seattle regional, got brave in the first inning and paid for it.
"I was just hoping they'd pitch to me so I could produce for my team," said Arioto, who walked 13 times in the Berkeley regional.
Britt Vonk reached first on a perfectly placed bunt with one out and the Huskies decided to have Kaitlin Inglesby pitch to Arioto.
"We don't worry about what other teams do," UW coach Heather Tarr said.
Big mistake. The senior from Pleasanton launched a high home run beyond the center field bleachers, giving the Bears a 2-0 lead. It was her 23rd homer of the season and the 54th of her career -- one shy of Veronica Nelson's nine-year-old school record.
Actually, Tarr called Inglesby's delivery a mistake. "She capitalized on a pitch we hung," the coach said.
"She did what she's supposed to do on that pitch," Inglesby confirmed.
Two batters later, senior Jace Williams made it 3-0 with another home run to center, her seventh of the season.
Henderson had the lead she needed and the Huskies rarely pressed her. "I thought we really came out ready to play," Ninemire said. "Jolene threw a tremendous game, really kept the hitters off balance."
The Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year, Henderson said she felt "awesome" throwing the ball.
The Bears nearly registered their third homer of the game in the second inning, but UW centerfielder Jerrin Fa'asua reached above the fence the pull back Danielle Henderson's drive.
sunday's games at berkeley
Cal vs. Washington, 4 p.m.
Cal vs. Washington, 6:30 p.m., if necessary