Jay Payton arrived at Camden Yards yesterday to find his name at the top of the Orioles' lineup.
He was not, to say the least, an obvious choice for the leadoff role, not after spending the first three weeks of the new season on the disabled list with a strained hamstring. Not against a tough left-hander when he hadn't had a single regular-season at-bat.
"It was a little bit of a shock," Payton said.
Manager Sam Perlozzo obviously thought it made sense. Everyday leadoff man Brian Roberts was under the weather all weekend, and Payton had good matchup numbers against Toronto Blue Jays starter Gustavo Chacin. If he was a little rusty, at least he would benefit from the extra at-bat.
So, Perlozzo pushed another in a series of the right buttons and Payton banged out three hits in his first Orioles start. He set the table as if he were born for the leadoff job and scored two runs to help the Orioles complete a three-game sweep of the rival Blue Jays with a 7-3 victory.
"[Saturday], he put Corey [Patterson] in there and he had a couple hits," Payton said. "Sam looks like a genius."
Perhaps, but Perlozzo wasn't exactly playing a hunch. The Orioles signed Payton because he is something of a problem-solver - a guy who can do a lot of things and doesn't consider his versatility some kind of curse.
He can play every outfield position and hit just about anywhere in the lineup. The Orioles signed him to be an everyday player, but not necessarily someone who would show up in the same place in the field or the batting order every day. They viewed him as a player who would shore up their defense, but not because he is just a defensive player.
"This is a guy we saw a lot of," Orioles vice president of baseball operations Jim Duquette said. "He hit behind Frank Thomas for most of last year [in Oakland]. He is an incredible hitter. This guy had 59 RBI last year with Frank Thomas getting most of them in front of him."
Payton was projected as the starting left fielder when he signed a two-year contract Dec. 11, but his role became less clear when the Orioles signed power-hitting outfielder-first baseman Aubrey Huff. Payton would quickly regain his place in the projected starting lineup early in spring training, but the hamstring injury forced the team to scramble for outfield help at the end of camp.
It can't be easy to come to a new team and sit, especially when it's playing pretty well without you, but Payton stepped into the lineup and quickly made it look like he had been there all along.
"This is my sixth team," he said, "so that didn't matter. I've fit in pretty well wherever I've been. ... I want to play, but everyone in here wants to play. That's no secret."
Though his projected role changed several times before he made his Orioles debut, Payton said he never worried about his playing time or how the performance of other players might affect it.
"I don't worry about that," he said. "I'm competing against myself. I know if I do what I'm capable of, I'm going to play. That's all I concern myself with."
Payton is going to play, but he'll normally show up in the bottom third of the lineup. When everyone is healthy - which means when catcher Ramon Hernandez comes back from a rib cage strain - he'll likely bat seventh or eighth.
The plan all along, according to Duquette, was to take advantage of his ability to play all three outfield positions to create some left-hand/right-hand flexibility for Perlozzo.
"His versatility is what stands out," Duquette said. "I believe he's the only guy since the early '90s to play 40 games at all three outfield positions in the same year [last year]. He can hit at the top of the lineup, in the middle of the lineup or at the bottom of the lineup. You know he's going to fit somewhere.
"You need those interchangeable parts to have a good team."
Payton, the problem-solver, has no problem with that.
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