Commentary

Patton shows her heart is on the field

DePaul softball standout with unique condition shines for the Blue Demons

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:16 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- It's easy enough to see that Amber Patton is the heartbeat by which No. 20 DePaul measures its offensive pulse. After all, the senior led her team in batting average in each of her first three seasons in Chicago, and even that was just the opening act for the show she's putting on in her final season for the Blue Demons.

After another productive weekend on the road at Rutgers and Villanova, she leads the nation with a .521 batting average through 42 games. That's 74 hits in 142 official at-bats. In other words, she could simply cede her next 100 at-bats and still hit .300.

[+] EnlargeAmber Patton
DePaul Athletics/Brendan Leahy Amber Patton's .521 batting average is the NCAA's best.

What's not as easy is finding her heartbeat, at least if you should happen to be the doctor unlucky enough to see her on a day when the mischievous glint in what are otherwise some of the most responsible eyes in college softball gains control.

"I've thought about kind of freaking the doctors out a little bit," Patton joked. "Not telling them and being like, 'What?! What's going on?'"

The secret she'd be hiding is situs inversus, a condition in which her major organs are aligned like a mirror image of those of her twin sister, Ashley, and the vast majority of the general population. Aside from the initial panic it caused her mother, Donna, when doctors hurried newborn Amber away for X-rays after not being able to find a heartbeat, the condition hasn't caused any health problems and doesn't post any long-term risks.

"Honestly, I forget about it," Patton said. "Everything matched up [in a rarer form of the condition, complications can arise when only the heart is transposed], so I've never had any complications. The only thing that I really have to do is inform the trainers, in case anything were to happen to me, that everything is messed around in there."

But if her unique physiology causes no problems off the field, the same can't be said for the effect her unique skills at the plate have on the mental health of opposing pitchers.

As one person with the program suggested, it's kind of fitting that a player whose heart is closer to first base than anyone else's when she bats left-handed became an elite slapper.

"It's been growth over four years," DePaul coach Eugene Lenti said. "She's a kid who hit in the No. 2 spot for us [early in her career]. We used her to sacrifice runners over or move runners over, and get herself on [base] on occasion. But the type of kid we would pinch hit for in an RBI situation. And now, I wouldn't even think twice about it. There's just so much more in her arsenal to hit the ball -- hit it to the gap and hit it with power. And that's how she's really developed; she's become a stronger, smarter hitter."

A natural right-hander who holds down the hot corner for the Blue Demons in the field, Patton was turned her around at the plate at age 11 by her dad. Even so, she was more of a swing-away hitter or a bunter during her high school days in Forsyth, Ill., a small town about three hours south of Chicago. It wasn't until she arrived at DePaul and started working with assistant coach Liz Jagielski that the subtleties of slapping became second nature.

[+] EnlargeAmber Patton
DePaul Athletics/Steve Woltmann Patton's contributions for DePaul spread beyond the plate, out to third base.

"They teach you to go up there and be calm in the box; they tell you to fall asleep in the box," Patton said of the approach to slapping. "So basically, you're just going up, you're seeing the ball and you're hitting the ball. Of course, it takes a while to get a new thing that you've learned -- to get that going in the game."

Against the soft underbelly of a league whose depth lags behind other BCS conferences, Patton's talent is apparent but her true value is muted. In truth, the Blue Demons don't need perfect execution to beat teams such as Rutgers and Villanova. But whether advancing to the Women's College World Series as a member of the Mid-Continent, Conference USA or Big East, DePaul has long played on a national stage as much as a conference stage. And it's with that eye toward the NCAA tournament that Patton becomes as integral a part of the team's outlook as junior ace Becca Heteniak in the circle.

Consider a 5-3 win against Michigan, DePaul's signature win to this point. Leading off against Nikki Nemitz, Patton reached on a bunt single and came around to score as part of a four-run inning in which only one ball left the infield and three Blue Demons reached on bunts. That's one of 10 times already that Patton reached base to lead off a game and came around to score for a team that is 15-1 when it scores in the first inning.

"She's an offensive catalyst … when you're getting on that much," Lenti said. "If everybody just executes behind her, they don't even have to get hits for us to score a run. She can get on and we can bunt her over -- or she can steal a base and we can move her over -- and then she can score on a sac fly or a ground ball."

For a player whose home games are contested in the shadow of Chicago's "L," there's also a newfound express service to go with the station-to-station trek around the bases. Barring a sudden surge of sacrifices, Patton will finish this season with more than twice as many extra-base hits as sacrifice bunts, no small feat for a player who had 44 sacrifice bunts and just eight extra-base hits in her first two seasons combined.

I think it really opened my eyes, and I think it really made me a better person, of realizing what else goes on outside of my little life.

--Amber Patton, on volunteering at soup kitchens

She hit the first two home runs of her career this season and matched her three-year total with three triples, making life difficult for corner infielders caught between crowding the batter's box in hopes of fielding her bunts in time to get her at first and watching line drives whistle past them -- still better than off them -- into the outfield beyond.

In her mind, the power isn't the result of a change in approach as much as the weight of experience.

"I think that as you go on, in a way, you kind of gain confidence; you kind of gain knowledge of your swing itself," Patton said. "If I'm not doing too well, I usually know what I'm doing. Usually what I'm doing is I'm keeping my feet too fast; I need to slow down. … So I would say, just becoming more mature throughout the years and just kind of learning yourself and what you can and can't do, and how you fix things quickly."

Perhaps it goes hand in hand, indicative of a particular mindset, but Patton's explanation of the process involved in refining potential as a hitter parallels her experiences off the field. One of 10 finalists for the Lowe's Senior Class Award, given to a senior who excels on the field, in the classroom and in the community, she's spearheaded efforts that raised thousands of dollars for breast cancer research and worked with AIDS-affected children. But what stands out in her mind are not so much grand objectives as slowing down the world -- like feet through the batter's box -- for a simple conversation with someone.

"I'm from a small town, so coming to Chicago was a really big culture shock -- seeing the homeless people," Patton said. "But going to the soup kitchen, you realize they just want to talk. They're just people. And I think it really opened my eyes, and I think it really made me a better person, of realizing what else goes on outside of my little life."

As a kid, Patton would sometimes place her left hand across her chest during the national anthem, just to have a little fun with those it might confuse. But like the balls that come slicing and spinning off her bat to pace a team, it turns out her heart is in exactly the right place.

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.