Valerie Arioto in the zone for Team USA
It would be fun to imagine a gripping internal monologue playing out in Valerie Arioto's head during one of the lengthy at-bats favored by a hitter who seems never to have met a 3-2 count she didn't like.
That's how it would work in the movies, at least, the Berkeley graduate crunching pitch probabilities in the batter's box or applying principles of psychology to calmly probe the pitcher's mind and predict a rise ball. The primary power source for the United States, Arioto nears this weekend's medal round in the ISF World Championship with 11 home runs in 20 games this summer with the national team. The rest of the team has 17. She's hitting .585 overall and .800 in the championship. That after Arioto tied for fourth in the NCAA in home runs last season at California despite seeing hittable pitches so infrequently her 94 walks weren't merely good enough to lead the nation, but did so by a margin of 33 free passes.
So, there must be some secret method by which she solves the puzzle as she bides all that time at the plate. Or perhaps not.
"I think when anyone is hitting the best, you're not thinking much," Arioto said. "You're just up there seeing and reacting. I think all the thinking happens before that, when you're working on your swing in batting practice or at practice. But when you're actually up to the plate in a game, hopefully you're not thinking too much. I think when you start overanalyzing and guessing what the pitcher is going to throw you, that's when things aren't going to go so well."
In fact, it turns out Team USA nearly missed out on its most valuable hitter because she let that Berkeley brain interfere at just the wrong moment.
It was the second practice of the 2011 season at Cal, still weeks away from games beginning for real, when Arioto slid awkwardly into second base and felt pain in her left leg. She was the last person to complete the drill and it felt wrong from the start, the adrenaline of live action missing, her mind overriding her natural instincts. She was, in her words, "thinking too much." A cleat caught in the dirt, her leg went the wrong way and the pain arrived.
A former soccer player, she had sprained ankles and dinged legs plenty of times. She knew immediately this was worse, knew even before the broken left fibula was confirmed.
"It was a whole different, other kind of pain," Arioto said. "I was worried, and part of my tears when it happened were, 'What's going to happen from here? Can I still play?' I was definitely crying because it hurt but more so just thinking about what was going to happen now?"
Her senior season was over before it started. As her team began a campaign that eventually ended with a return to the Women's College World Series for the first time in six years, Arioto could only watch. She had already been invited to try out for the national team that summer, the team that would replace a generation of players leaving the international game and eventually compete in this year's world championship in Canada. It would have been a natural progression, her final college season completing the evolution of her skills and putting her in the best position possible to represent her country. Instead, her hands held crutches, not a bat, for weeks on end.
"It was definitely in my head," Arioto said. "The recovery at first was slow. I couldn't do much. ... You can't do rehab when you're in a cast, it's just sit and wait for it to heal. There were definitely times when I was down, and I felt like, 'Am I not going to come back? And if I do come back, am I going to be able to hit?' So there were definitely doubts in my mind."
Doubts weren't among the things that crossed Ken Eriksen's mind when the coach got his first extended look at Arioto with an American team that competed in the 2010 Japan Cup, the summer before her injury. Awe, wonderment and glee, perhaps. But not doubt. Now the head coach, but then an assistant with Team USA, Eriksen was largely unfamiliar with the Pac-10 player before that trip to Sendai City. He was immediately struck by the power she had "from her elbows to her fingertips" and her ability to hit for power to the opposite field rather than simply pulling the ball in the mold of more one-dimensional sluggers.
So come last summer's tryouts, Eriksen knew what kind of power resided in Arioto's bat and how much his new lineup needed a reliable run producer to protect holdover Katie Cochran and complement the short game he hoped to build. The problem was few others involved in picking the team that week made the same connection early on. Facing live pitching for essentially the first time since the injury, Arioto might as well have swung a crutch.
"She got the injury during the year, and I was really devastated for her because I thought she was coming [on] fast," Eriksen said. "She got to trials camp and her first two days of trials were brutal. She was coming off the injury, her timing wasn't there and this and that. There were a couple of committee members there, we were talking about [how] they don't want to keep her, she's not doing this or that.
"I said, 'OK, you guys got to wait. You got to wait and see what's going on.' The last two days she put on a show."
The show hasn't stopped. Team USA rolled through pool play this week in Whitehorse with an offense hitting on all cylinders, but along with veteran Cochran, part of the American team that won a world championship in 2010, and Stacy May-Johnson, a two-time National Pro Fastpitch MVP with the Chicago Bandits, Arioto has been one of the lineup's bulwarks for two summers running. The national team has been built and rebuilt around them.
Standing 5-foot-7 with a quiet swing until those arms roar through the finish, Arioto doesn't cut a particularly imposing figure at the plate. Nor away from the plate, for that matter. There are the bows, of course, the brightly colored bows she regularly sports on the field and which she will soon market for a business she runs. But mostly it's the smile that disarms. It's almost always there for someone who seems to find the world a perpetually amusing place.
With one exception.
"She's crazy; she just likes to have fun," said former Cal teammate Danielle Henderson. "You will see her smiling on the field, but when she gets in the batter's box, it's like her whole entire personality changes. She's just out there to get something done. She's on a roll, and in that batter's box she's unstoppable. She has one of the best eyes I've ever seen; she can tell a ball from a strike like nobody else. And she has so much power, it's crazy."
College teams eventually decided to stop pitching to her on all but the rarest occasions. International opponents don't have the luxury. Sam Fischer's emergence as a power hitter who usually shows up behind Arioto in the order means there is little relief for pitchers, and the work of some combination of Michelle Moultrie, Rhea Taylor, Lauren Gibson, Cochran and May-Johnson ahead of Arioto means there often isn't anywhere on the bases to put her in the first place. All she has to do is hit.
"I definitely haven't had as many walks as at Cal," Arioto said. "Who would you want to pitch to here? If you don't pitch to me, Sam is right after me and has just as much power as me. It's crazy. Why would you want to walk anyone in this lineup?"
It's a good question. At the very least, opponents have to think twice before they pitch around Arioto. And once they start thinking too much, it's all over.