April 14, 2007
by Simit Shah – Sitting and watching is tough for any competitor. That doesn’t begin to describe the experience for Danny Payne last season.
The Yellow Jackets starting centerfielder was in the midst of a special season (.356, 11 HR, 44 RBI, 20 steals) when a shoulder injury suffered during a collision suddenly ended his sophomore campaign in late April. The blow became more painful as he watched his teammates advance to the College World Series in Omaha.
“It was tough because I had started every game since my freshman year,” the junior said. “It was hard to see them go to Omaha since we had come so close my freshman year. I was happy to see it unfold the way it did, but I really wanted to be a part of it. Missing that experience made me hungry going into this year.”
The Woodstock, Georgia native is fully recovered from surgery to repair a torn labrum and picked up right where he left off last season. At the top of order, Payne has established himself as a bonafide leadoff man. Through 34 games, he is hitting .381 and has reached base in over 53 percent of his plate appearances.
Payne has also exhibited patience at the plate, already drawing 42 walks this season. He’s earning a free base at nearly twice his career average.
“You gain experience each year you play,” explained head coach Danny Hall. “I would attribute it more to playing three years and having that experience. He’s a lot more patient at the plate. He understands that he can draw a walk and still do a lot of damage stealing bases and putting pressure on pitchers. He’s just more mature than anything else. He’s become a much more complete leadoff hitter.”
Despite amassing impressive numbers, Payne is trying to ignore all the statistics this year. His injury has given him new perspective on his approach to the game.
“In baseball, a lot of guys get caught up in stats,” he said. “Getting hurt was humbling, and now I don’t really care about that stuff. I’m just happy to out here playing again. It keeps everything light on me.
“I’m not worried about home runs or anything,” he continued. “What happened last year was a freak accident. You don’t look at baseball as a sport that can be taken like that in an instant like football. When that happened, it kind of scared me, so I appreciate the game more. I’m having a lot more fun playing.”
In addition to roaming centerfield, Payne is also contributing on the mound. An accomplished high school hurler, the left hander is one of Hall’s weapons out of the bullpen. Catcher Matt Wieters is the more prominent Jacket that fills the dual role, but Hall is counting on Payne in late-inning situations, and so far he’s delivered with a 2.79 ERA in eight appearances.
“He relishes that role,” the coach said. “He’s got that grit and determination to compete, which makes everyone else compete too. He’s just a great competitor, and there’s nothing a baseball field he can’t do.”
Payne is able to stay loose in centerfield, and he has the ability to warm up quickly between innings or when the Jackets are at bat.
“I just go in there thinking that I’m going to throw it as hard as I can,” he said. “They put the glove down, and I try to hit it. They knew I could pitch from day one, and just haven’t needed me much until now. The coaches have done a good job making sure my arm is in shape and that I get enough work in practice. They are confident that I can get the job done when they call on me.”
Payne’s contributions on the mound and at the plate are especially important as the Jackets are engineering a rebound from a 9-9 start. Since then, they’ve won 14 of 17 to place themselves in the thick of the Coastal division race.
“I just think we need to relax and not press so much,” Payne noted. “Most of us haven’t experience this rough of a start. We’ve always won our first 14, 15, 16 games before stumbling. Unfortunately, we’ve stumbled coming out of the blocks this year. We’re young, and we’re trying to find the right formula. We just have to be patient.”