Big 12 Campus Correspondent
It’s the opportunity that young baseball players dream of. Your team trailing in the bottom of the ninth inning, down to your last strike with the bases loaded and two outs.
Senior outfielder Mark Payton faced this situation and the daunting task of forging a comeback when he stepped up to the plate during with Texas trailing Baylor 4-2 in the teams’ series opener on April 4.
Once he made contact with the ball, he knew he hit a double. He ended up hitting a three-run double, giving Texas a 5-4 win.
While the finish to the game was dramatic, Payton’s heroics are no surprise. The senior has been a consistent asset to the Longhorn offense all season.
“We’re getting better every day and that’s something we said from day one,” Payton said. “We want to come out here and get better every day and just put in everything you’ve got. That’s all you can ask for. I’m really happy with how we’re playing right now and we’re going to keep moving forward. “
Selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 16th round of the 2013 MLB Draft, Payton decided to return to Texas for his senior year. Being a professional baseball player was his dream for a long time, so it wasn’t easy turning down the opportunity.
But he returned to Texas because he knew there was work to be done. He wanted to help his team return to national contention.
“We [the seniors] wanted to come back and get this program back on the national level where it needs to be,” Payton said. “Really we want to be the leaders of this team and teach these young guys the right way.”
He is doing that in both his attitude and performance on the field.
Payton is currently leads the Big 12 in on-base percentage (.480) and is tied for the lead in triples (5). He ranks third in batting average (.361) and third in walks (28). He has reached base safely in 73 consecutive games dating back to last season, which is the longest active streak nationally.
Payton and senior pitcher Nathan Thornhill were both drafted last season. But both had a bad taste in their mouths from when the baseball team struggled in its previous two years.
Thornhill is enjoying watching Payton’s success this season from the dugout.
“I just get to watch Mark be Mark,” Thornhill said. “When I’m pitching, having a guy like that in centerfield and having a guy like that in the lineup, you know you’re going to get some kind of a spark from him. The younger guys see that and they want to be like Mark.”
His success on the field has provided a ripple effect for the offense. Over the last 13 games, Texas is averaging 5.8 runs per game and hitting .301 as a team with a .402 slugging percentage and .406 on-base percentage.
“He is the best baseball player I’ve seen in person,” Thornhill said. “He doesn't swing at bad pitches. He’s one of the smartest baseball players I’ve ever seen on the field. He can throw people out. He knows what to do on defense. He’s a true captain and a leader.”
Thornhill said Payton has improved drastically since they arrived on campus in 2010. Unlike many batters, Payton hasn’t changed his swing so he has been consistent batting all four years. Thornhill said Payton’s maturity and baseball intelligence has drastically improved since they began playing at Texas.
Head coach Augie Garrido agrees that Payton’s baseball intelligence is outstanding.
“I believe in him and I believe that he'll make good choices,” Garrido said. “He's got one of the best baseball IQs at the college level that I've been around and I've been around some really good ones. He's one of the best. He knows when to bunt, he knows when to take the pitch. He knows when to hit it.”
Professional baseball waits for Payton at the end of this season. But he isn’t allowing himself to think about that. Right now, he’s focusing on Texas.
“We’re winning ball games, we’re winning conference series,” Payton said. “It’s going well so far. It’s a good feeling. You’d rather go 0-for-4 and win the game than go 4-for-4 and lose the game. It feels really good right now.”
Payton admired Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter growing up. As he got older, Payton was drawn to Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. Both he and Payton stand at 5-foot-8.
“He’s not the tallest guy, he’s not the biggest guy,” Payton said. “He’s a gamer and he grinds every game. He’s the hardest worker in the game, I believe. That’s the guy you want to be on your team. You want to be that guy that everyone loves and be the first guy at the ballpark and the last one to leave. Everyone knows he’s going to give everything he’s got and that’s what I want to do.”
Neither Payton nor Pedroia are the biggest players on the field. But at bats like the one that Payton had against Baylor prove that, like Pedroia, Payton knows how to play big.