AUSTIN, Texas -- Mark Payton might have been one of the only players on the diamond Friday afternoon not from the state of Texas. But he sure knew how to start the Austin Super Regional with a bang.
Payton, the Longhorns’ centerfielder, stepped up to the plate in the top of the first inning at UFCU Disch-Falk Field and nearly hit one back to his hometown of Chicago. The ball sailed past the 325-foot mark in right field and quickly put Texas up 2-0 on Houston and within one win of its record 35th berth in the College World Series.
In a ballpark not known for its hitter-friendly confines, Payton managed to impress even his toughest critics. “You hit that hard, it’ll go out anywhere,” Houston head coach Todd Whitting said. “He crushed that ball.”Texas head coach Augie Garrido shook his head, remembering what he felt watching the ball jump the wall: “It could only be [described as] disbelief. We really haven’t seen any go out of this park ... ever.”
The 7,385 fans appreciated it, too, giving Payton a standing ovation and asking for a tip of the cap as he stepped back into the dugout.
Houston was never given a chance to gain momentum after that, failing to garner any offensive power.
The very next inning, Payton, a senior, was selected 212nd overall by the New York Yankees in the seventh round of the MLB draft.
“My focus right now is to be a Longhorn and to win [Saturday],” Payton said.
“He’s a very selfless person,” teammate C.J. Hinojosa said. “The word ‘selfish’ is used a lot in baseball, but he’s the complete opposite of that. He’s always looking out for the guy next to him. He’s our senior leader.”
It took “four months of begging” for Garrido to convince the three seniors who took the field for the Longhorns today to return, but Payton’s performance proved Garrido’s perseverance paid off.
With his home run, Payton has reached base in 100 consecutive games – the longest active streak across the country and a Big 12 conference record.
“It got us off to a good start,” Payton said. “Hitting’s contagious.”
The Longhorns garnered five more hits and two more runs to make it 4-0 before the Cougars erased their goose egg on the scoreboard.
While Houston took two runs back in the bottom of the fifth, the Longhorns proved too much for the Cougars, falling 4-2 in the opening game.
The Cougars, no strangers to being backed in a corner, came from behind last weekend at LSU to take two games and advance to the Austin Super Regional.
“We’re just going to scratch and claw and try to win tomorrow and see what happens from there,” Houston’s Josh Vidales said.
Whitting agreed: “We were down to the last swing, whether we were going to win or lose the game, so it’s two out of three. Hopefully, it’s a three-game series. We just have to keep playing.”
“You can get so excited about something you can’t control – like going to Omaha – that you forget about the fundamentals and you lose to your nerves and your emotions,” Garrido said. “Anything can happen.”
• Thornhill, Payton lead Texas victory against Houston Highlights