Texas has an All-American closer, a third baseman that’s batting over .400 in his last 19 games and two starting pitchers who gave up one run between them in 14-and-two-thirds collective innings during UT’s last series against Oklahoma State.
But the Longhorns’ best player may very well be sophomore right fielder Mark Payton. The 5-foot-8-inch, 165-pounder from Chicago, who has reached base in all of Texas’ 33 games this year, is certainly the team’s pound-for-pound top player. And he proved why in the three-game series against OSU this weekend.
On Saturday, Payton made his presence felt at the plate.
In the second game of the doubleheader, Payton strolled into the batter’s box with one out in the eighth inning and the game tied 2-2. Payton, a left-handed batter, took advantage of a strong wind blowing out toward left field by lifting a pitch from Cowboys hurler Vince Wheeland to the opposite field.
The ball was hit to the same place Payton’s double the night before was hit. But this time it cleared the wall instead of ricocheting off of it. Payton circled the bases after hitting his second home run of the year, giving the Longhorns a 3-2 lead. They won the series finale and rubber match by that score, making it four Big 12 series in a row that Texas has triumphed in.
“He’s pretty clutch,” said freshman pitcher Parker French, who tossed eight scoreless innings in the first game of Saturday afternoon’s doubleheader. “He always seems to square up the ball in big moments. He’s awesome. He’s a tough out.”
Payton’s long ball came four innings after he made a superb defensive play.
Freshman pitcher Ricky Jacquez got in trouble in the first inning, allowing two runs, and found himself in another jam in the fourth. Jacquez surrendered a leadoff double and issued a one-out walk. With two outs and runners on second and third base, OSU senior catcher Jared Womack hit a weak pop up to shallow right field that seemed like it would drop in for a hit. But Payton made a sensational full-length diving grab, securing the catch just before the ball hit the turf, saving a pair of runs in the process.
“It’s not all about hitting home runs,” Payton said. “I got a pretty good jump on it and was lucky enough that the wind was blowing out to left field. I was playing pretty shallow in right as it is.”
Then, on Friday, with Texas hanging on to a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning, Cowboys senior first baseman Gabe Weidenaar ripped a single to right field. OSU second baseman Robbie Rea was on second base before the hit and was rounding third as Payton readied to throw home. The throw was on the money to catcher Jacob Felts, who applied the tag and preserved the shutout.
“He’s like that great point guard. He does things to make everybody around him better,” said Texas head coach Augie Garrido, who coached his 1,000th Texas game Friday, the same day it was reported by the Austin American-Statesman that he had received a two-year contract extension through 2015. “He does a lot of the little things, the intangibles where he shows a special kind of courage and a special kind of determination.”
Payton hit a one-out double off the left field wall in the eighth inning but was stranded on second base while Oklahoma State tacked on the decisive two runs in the 11th inning and earned a 3-1 victory. But Texas didn’t let that defeat get to them, picking up a pair of victories the next day.
“Last year’s team and this year’s team are the same way,” said Payton, who has 5-for-12 with 4 RBI in the series. “We hate to lose. There’s an instinct inside us that just says to pick it up another notch. These last two wins show how much character this team has and how we can bounce back after a tough game.”
Printed on Monday, April 16th, 2012 as: Payton carries UT against Oklahoma State