Baseball

History 101: An oral history of Mark Payton's national-record on-base streak at Texas

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Posted May 22nd, 2018

In his first game as a Longhorn, designated hitter Zach Zubia struck out as a pinch-hitter in Texas’ season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.

Zubia, though, got on base the next day with a walk and a single. The freshman then reached base the following game. And the game after that. Forty-one straight opponents failed to keep Zubia off the bases, a stretch that lasted from mid-February deep into April. “Streaks are meant to be broken,” he modestly noted during the run.

Those words foreshadowed four fruitless at-bats against the New Orleans Privateers on April 22. While it was an impressive streak — and UT’s best this year — Zubia didn’t get anywhere close to the stretch of success that former Longhorns outfielder Mark Payton pieced together during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

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Starting with a first-inning single against UT-Pan American on March 5, 2013, Payton reached base safely in 101 straight games. The NCAA doesn’t keep records for consecutive games having safely reached base, but Texas recognizes Payton’s streak as an NCAA record; the NCAA has been unable to find a longer streak, though.

Only Jeff Ontiveros started more games at Texas than Payton, who made 234 starts for Augie Garrido from 2011-14. Payton, who led the team in hitting his last two seasons, was a two-time first-team all-conference selection. Now 26, he’s in his fifth year in the New York Yankees’ farm system though a knee injury has kept him off the field this spring.

Payton doesn’t remember much about its origins. But there were moments that stood out. Five years later, Payton and others who witnessed his long road to history — former UT outfielder Ben Johnson (2013-15), utility player Andy McGuire (2014-15, 2018), long-time UT baseball broadcaster Craig Way, former UT baseball sports information director Justin Moore, former UT pitcher Nathan Thornhill (2011-14) and UT athletic equipment manager Vince Alcazar— shared their Streak recollections with the American-Statesman:

April 5, 2013: One streak ends, another begins

That Payton single against UT-Pan Am in March 2013 also started what would end up as a 16-game hitting streak. That fell nine games short of Michael Torres’ school record when Payton went hitless against Oklahoma in a 2-1 Sooners win on April 5. Oklahoma’s pitcher was Jonathan Gray, who now anchors the Colorado Rockies’ rotation. He struck out Payton twice — though Payton did draw a walk on five pitches in the sixth inning.

Payton: Gray had his stuff that night; he beat me. Really good pitcher. He still is. We faced a lot of really, really good arms throughout (the year).

Johnson: Aside from facing Gray (who was the third overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft), we faced … Jason Hursh (31st overall pick), Tom Windle (56th), Dillon Overton (63rd), and Brandon Finnegan (17th, in 2014). For Mark to find a way to get on base every single game against top-level major league talent just makes his record even more impressive.

Payton’s 16-game hitting streak was his second longest during the on-base streak. He hit safely in 18 straight games over the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Johnson said that the end of that hitting streak, when Payton went 0 for 2 with two walks against Rice on Feb. 28, 2014, made the Longhorns take notice of Payton’s on-base run that had reached 49 games at that point.

Johnson: I believe it was a 3-2 count (in the bottom of the eighth) and the pitcher for Rice threw ball four and everyone in the dugout was kind of bummed because his hit streak for consecutive games ended. Coach Garrido looked at me and said, “That was the most unselfish at-bat of the year. He had a very long hit streak going on and for him to take ball four knowing that streak would end for the betterment of the team is the sign of an ultimate team player.” Shortly after, we realized, he still had another streak going on which was reaching base in consecutive games. The rest is history.

March 25, 2014: Three hits for Augie

Moore, who was UT’s sports information director for baseball that season, began reaching out to colleagues across the country when Payton’s on-base streak reached 60 games. It was determined that no active player was on a better run than Payton. “That’s when we really started to promote it heavily,” Moore recalled.

Payton’s streak reached 65 games in a 5-1 win over Texas State. On paper, though, his 3-for-4 performance wasn’t all that notable. Payton, after all, did produce a pair of four-hit performances during his streak.

That midweek victory, however, was historic as Garrido became college baseball’s all-time winningest coach. Garrido, who passed away this March, ended his coaching career in 2016 with 1,975 wins. That mark was recently surpassed by Florida State’s Mike Martin.

Payton: That night, it was super special to him. Being a part of something like that is special to me, obviously, because to him, that’s a record-breaking game, a record-breaking win. Just being a part of that team and getting to play for him was an honor. More than just contributing to that win, it was being a part of it. You can ask anyone on that team. They won’t forget they were a part of that record-breaking win.

McGuire: Afterward it was pretty cool. Everyone shook his hand and gave him a big hug, congratulated him. They made a big announcement over the speaker. I’m super grateful to be able to have been on the field and played for that guy and been a part of that milestone. It was pretty awesome.

April 4, 2014: Payton’s bat beats Baylor

Seven of the streak’s 101 games came down to the final at-bat with Payton at the plate. One of those close calls was against Baylor.

Payton had grounded out in his first four at-bats. But with Texas trailing 4-2 in the ninth inning, he got another opportunity with two outs and the bases loaded. He doubled down the left field line; Texas secured its 24th win of the season.

McGuire: It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life just because we won the game on a bases-loaded, two-out, full-count, bottom-of-the-ninth double down the left-field line. It was a huge win for us. Then you kind of think … that was his fifth at-bat. Everything had to work out perfectly for him to do that and continue the streak.

Payton: I don’t remember the whole sequence, but I got to 3-1 and I thought there was a ball and I had thrown my bat like I walked. I was going to first and the umpire called a strike, so I had to regroup a little bit. Probably not the best look to do that at that point of the game. Lucky enough, (the next) pitch (was) in the same spot and I just slapped it down the line.

Way: By the time of the start of the Baylor series, we had been talking about the streak for some time, and it had been getting a lot of coverage. I remember Mark being really nonplussed by the attention and always giving the “team first” answer to questions about the streak. Going into that final at-bat in the bottom of the ninth, with the team trailing, I remember thinking that this would be a tough way for the streak to end. Given what he was able to do — to be able to concentrate on just keeping the inning alive — was probably a major reason why he was able to deliver the game-winning hit in such dramatic fashion. At that point, those of us broadcasting the team started thinking that this was really something special.

Moore: Seeing that kind of clutch hitting was awesome, and it’s what Mark did throughout his career at UT.

JUNE 6, 2014 – Texas #2, Mark Payton, runs past the dugout after a two-run home run against Houston in the first inning of the NCAA Super Regional series’ game one held at UFCU Disch-Falk Field in Austin, Texas, on Friday, June 6, 2014. Texas defeated Houston 4-2 in game one of the best of three series. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

June 6, 2014: Guiding Texas to Omaha

Drew Bishop, UT’s director of baseball operations, said a lot of Payton’s plays “weren’t empty streak extenders.” Sure enough, 56 of the at-bats that were counted during Payton’s streak were his first appearance at the plate. Thirty of those streak-extending plays led to the Longhorns either taking a lead or scoring a game-tying run.

Both of those scenarios were in play when Texas hosted Houston in the 2014 super regionals for the chance to advance to the College World Series. UT swept the Cougars and never trailed during the two games. In the first game, Payton hit a two-run home run in the first inning off Jake Lemoine, who now is a Texas Rangers prospect.

It was Payton’s seventh career homer. It also served as justification. A year earlier, Payton had been selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 16th round of the amateur draft. Thornhill, who was the winning pitcher in that 4-2 victory, was a mid-round pick of the Houston Astros in the same draft. But both Payton and Thornhill chose to return to UT, which had missed the postseason the previous two years.

Payton: That was the reason myself and Nathan went back, was to get the University of Texas back in that spot. Obviously it wasn’t just us two. We had 35 guys pulling on the same rope. That’s the reason we went back was to get us an opportunity to play in Omaha.

Thornhill: I remember feeling like there was no way we were going to lose to Houston. Mark set the tone for the series with his home run. No one was going to keep us from Omaha. Baseball is a funny game. It can embarrass you and reward you; that game/super regional felt like a reward for trusting the process and coming back for our senior year.

Alcazar: It was a perfect moment. It had been three years, four years since we had hosted a super regional. It was like the Baylor thing — the perfect guy in the perfect spot. To start off a regional, why not Mark Payton at that time?

June 14, 2014: 101 — and done

Payton’s streak was finally snapped by UC Irvine, which kept him off the bases in a 3-1 win to open the College World Series. He went 0 for 4 with a sacrifice bunt. A strikeout in the ninth inning ended any hopes of a Baylor-like continuation of the streak. The Longhorns, playing in the CWS for the 35th time, rebounded from that loss with three straight  wins. But a 4-3 elimination game loss to Vanderbilt ended UT’s season one game short of the CWS championship series.

Payton reached base safely in each of those final four games.

Payton: Obviously you don’t want to get to Omaha and lose. That was the most important thing, and that’s still the most important things to me. I’m never going to be about personal records and personal this, this, this or that. It’s about the friendships I created and the wins we had, the conference championship my freshman year, the two trips to Omaha, hosting two super regionals, the beating the in-state rivals in the playoffs, the runs we made in the Big 12 tournament. I don’t want to say it took a weight of my shoulder, but you go out there and play worry-free, not have to worry about anything.

Johnson: We had to just forget about it and move on. When we entered the postseason, Mark was all about winning the whole thing in Omaha. The record was an afterthought. I remember a reporter asking him about it after the game and he said, “So what? We lost, we lost today so that’s the end of it.” He truly felt that way. A fan actually got a tattoo of a baseball with “101” in the middle of it to represent the 101 games of reaching base, and I believe we found out about it after the UC Irvine game, so we all got a kick out of it. I think hearing about the tattoo made us relax and laugh about how crazy this record was.

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