Bringing the 'Payne'

The battle for second base for South Carolina's baseball team has been well-documented this season. Erik Payne has started the last four games at second base, going 6-for-12 with a homerun, triple, double, and three RBI. That has been more than enough to earn Payne the starting spot at second for now.

For the first month of the 2012 baseball season, second base has been an open door, just waiting for somebody to step in and close. At least for now it has been slammed shut by a player that was not even in the running at the beginning of the season.

Connor Bright, TJ Costen and Chase Vergason were the three in the running at the beginning of the season, and while they have done some positive things, none of the three emerged as the favorite.

Enter Erik Payne.

Perhaps through one of his timely premonitions, Carolina head coach Ray Tanner decided to move Payne from third base and give him an opportunity at second last Thursday. When the Gamecocks opened their series against Princeton the Friday, Payne was in the starting line-up.

"I was pretty surprised," Payne said over the weekend. "They told me on Thursday that they wanted me to take some ground balls over there; I didn't expect them to put me over there the next night. Right now I'm just taking it day by day to see how it goes."

The sophomore from Virginia had a difficult first season at third base behind Adrian Morales who was never shy to speak his mind.

"We laugh a little bit because he was a true freshman and the other guy at third base was Morales," Tanner said. "Morales is a tough cookie to hang around with when you're young. I think he was a little hard on him and being new I'm not sure that Payne understood it on a daily basis. The game was more difficult for him than it ever had been, like it is for most freshmen. He kept grinding it out and he's a guy that I've seen many, many times in my career where a guy just sticks with it."

Payne did stick with it hoping he would get his opportunity this season. With the fall LB Dantzler had, he quickly locked down the job at third base and Payne was left in the back-up spot again. At second base his chances are much better.

"It's a lot better feeling than being behind LB because he can hit," Payne said. "It's open I think and I'm just trying to do my best to help the team win. Hopefully I'll get more opportunities there"

Playing second base for the first time since he was a sophomore in high school, perhaps due to nerves – or because of Princeton pitchers Zak Hermans and Kevin Link – Payne struggled, going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. Despite the struggles in the opening game, Tanner gave him another opportunity Saturday based on his hitting in practice.

"He hit some balls in practice that makes you want to have some cracks up there for him," Tanner said following the Princeton series. "I watched him take some ground balls in the middle of the week at second base. He seemed to be more comfortable at second base than third base, although he has improved over there. I just made the decision to throw him in there and maybe that bat works."

On Saturday and Sunday the bat worked perfectly. Payne was 2-for-3 on Saturday, but it was Sunday when he took a major step forward. He hit his first career homerun onto the concourse behind the seats in left field in the second and added an RBI double in the seventh to lead the Gamecocks to a 3-1 win.

"A lot of the veteran guys stress not to stress," Payne said. "Don't press because only bad things are going to happen. I just go out there and play as relaxed as possible in the opportunities that I get and it's worked out so far."

After going 4-for-9 on the weekend, Payne found his name in the line-up again on Tuesday night when the Gamecocks hosted Charleston Southern. Just as he did against Princeton, Payne had another great night. Payne went 2-for-3 with an RBI triple that was nearly an inside-the-park homerun, but Payne was thrown out at the plate.

"It still is a small sample, but he's done pretty good with what he's had to work with," Tanner said following Tuesday's game. "I'm not going to go back tonight and say Payne is not playing tomorrow. He's in there tomorrow. We'll sort of take it as it goes from day-to-day, but he's solidified himself for now. He's not a guy that's been here for three years and has a career batting average of .300 and has played a lot. He's played very little, but for what he's done he deserves to be in there and I'm going to stick with him right now."

Payne is a kid that has overcome adversity in his young Gamecock career, but through hard work and determination, he has earned a chance to be a mainstay in the line-up.

"He's a kid that has worked extremely hard since he's been in the program and, quite honestly, there were a couple of points last year that was really difficult for him," Tanner said. "Although he wasn't playing it seemed like he had some tough practices and he was trying and got frustrated a little bit, but he keeps grinding it. Guys that do that sometimes surface and he never went away. He had some tough days at practice and really was immature a little bit as a freshman, which happens to a lot of them. He's much more physical now; he has a different body than he did a year ago. I threw him in there because I thought he was the right person. I didn't know that he would have a pretty good weekend of course. I did it because of the person he is and I thought he had a chance. I threw him in there and he's handled it pretty well."

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