By Jeff Nations
WOODSTOCK -- Anthony "Teddy" Payne had the makings of a great summer planned out last year.
Having just wrapped up his collegiate baseball season at West Virginia State, Payne struck out for the coast to join the Beach League Bay Frogs in the Myrtle Beach Collegiate Baseball League.
Picture it -- mornings lounging in a team-provided condominium or heading out to the surf and sand along the famous South Carolina coastline, nights playing baseball under the lights for the Bay Frogs ... sounded pretty good to Payne.
But when the Strasburg Express called with an offer to finish out the season in the Valley Baseball League, Payne needed all of 24 hours to get his bags packed and head north.
"I'd just always heard good things," said Payne, a native of Hurricane, West Virginia. "I had a couple friends in the league, played for Rockbridge, and they'd told me, 'Man, this is where you need to play.' It's good competition, good coaching, good baseball, you get to play every day and that's exactly what I need right now to get to where I want to go."
Payne, primarily a catcher, took an instant liking to the VBL. In his July 1 debut last year on the road against the Aldie Senators, Payne went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBIs. It was the start of a five-game hitting streak for the burly rising junior.
"I came directly from playing in the Beach League, so I'd been playing all summer long," Payne said. "The first week I was here, I saw nothing but fastballs so I just really took off the first few weeks."
Payne eventually cooled off at the plate, but remained a key performer the rest of the season as Strasburg made a startling push for the playoffs that culminated in the franchise's first-ever appearance in the James W. Lineweaver Cup championship series. The Express lost a hard-fought best-of-three series with a deciding Game 3 loss on their home field, but team knew it had found a catcher for 2014.
"As soon as they asked me to come back, the day we finished the season, I said yes," Payne said. "I signed my paperwork as soon as they got it to me.
"Great experience -- one of the best experiences I've ever had, baseball-wise."
Payne has done much to boost his offensive production from last season after finishing with an uncharacteristically low .186 batting average -- he was coming off a college season where he batted .384 with eight homers and 31 RBIs for West Virginia State.
This season, he's hitting a much more Payne-like .301 for the Express and ranks second on the team in RBIs with 14.
First-year Strasburg manager Ben Moore has been impressed with Payne, a player he essentially inherited from last season's squad.
"If we had to name a team captain, and we don't give out captains, if we had to name one he's probably it," Moore said. "He's the leader of the team. He's by far the best player on the team."
Moore was surprised at one thing -- he figured Payne would probably get selected in June's Major League Baseball draft. Strasburg pitcher Mike Vinson, a first-year member of the Express who plays collegiately at the University of Florida, said can't believe Payne isn't playing for an NCAA Division I program. West Virginia State is a Division II program.
"He's really nice to throw to -- he's smart, he knows what he's doing back there, he sells out for everything you do," Vinson said. "I mean, I love him back there. He's got a good arm and he saves a lot of runners for you. It's always nice when you have a catcher like that. You don't have to worry about passed balls. You can just throw whatever you want."
Moore said Payne and fellow Strasburg catcher Dustin Woody have been instrumental in guiding the pitching staff this season.
"He's kind of like another assistant coach because he controls that pitching staff," Moore said. "Him and [Dustin] Woody do unbelievable jobs controlling our pitching staff. It's like having a second pitching coach out there."
Following a slow start, the Express have won seven of their last 10 to creep toward .500 at 12-14 heading into Wednesday night's game at Woodstock. Payne was around the last time Strasburg produced a memorable second half surge, and he sees no reason why it can't happen again this summer.
"We've been playing well, putting runs on the board, and we've had some good outings by our pitchers," Payne said. "That's really been crucial, and we've really been playing solid defense. I think that's the main key because if we play solid defense, we win games."
Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org