For an average player, two hits over the course of a three-game series would equal a major slump. Fortunately for the Longhorns, senior center fielder Mark Payton is not just any average player.
Payton went a combined 2-for-13 with two walks during Texas’ three-game sweep of Baylor this weekend, struggling to find consistency at the plate. Although it was his worst three-game stretch of the season, the senior from Chicago drove in four runs, including a bases-clearing walk-off double Friday, his only hit in the 5-4 victory.
That hit, which came on a full count with two outs, extended his streak of reaching base safely to an NCAA-leading 70 games. Following an RBI single Saturday and two walks Sunday, the streak now sits at 72 and has people wondering whether he can make it to 100.
Payton has proven he is one of the best pure hitters to pass through this decorated program — up there with the likes of Jeff Ontiveros, Omar Quintanilla, Kevin Keyes and Drew Stubbs. Those players own a combined three national championships and a handful of other trips to the College World Series. Each played a pivotal role in reviving a Texas program that, prior to the Longhorns’ championship in 2002, had not been to the College World Series Championship since 1989.
Payton stacks up with all of them. The first thing that stands out is his efficiency at the plate, where he has hit over .300 in all but his freshman season. Last season, he finished with a .393 average and .483 on-base percentage. Those are numbers that Ontiveros, Quintanilla, Keyes and Stubbs never attained while at Texas.
Payton’s biggest strength is his patience, which explains why he has only struck out nine times in 119 at-bats this season. Only Quintanilla, who currently plays shortstop for the New York Mets, had a lower strikeout percentage. This plate efficiency was formed out of necessity. Unlike these other players, whose teams were stacked with talented hitters, Payton has been the only proven hitter in his teams’ lineups. As a result, opposing teams have been far more selective in how they’ve pitched to him.
Despite a rough weekend, Payton is sitting at a .370 average and has reached base in nearly half his at-bats. With 25 RBI’s already in 2014, he is on pace to shatter his previous season-high of 29.
If he can maintain this production and get some help from his teammates, he will have to chance to end his collegiate career the same way it started: with a trip to the College World Series.