Payton Hutchings is somewhat of a prodigy. Committed to the University of Illinois before he was granted a driver’s license, the Coal City southpaw has spent the past three seasons evading bats while pitching and evading defender’s gloves while in the batter’s box.
Thanks to a third year of all-around stellar play on the diamond, Hutchings has been named the 2019 Daily Journal Co-Player of the Year.
“Payton’s a kid who, by the time he’s done here, is going to obliterate pretty much every all-time pitching record here, and he’s probably going to be at the top of most offensive categories,” Coalers coach Greg Wills said. “Statistically, he’s probably going to go down as the best player to ever go through here.”
Hutchings hadn’t yet started his sophomore baseball season when he committed to pitch for the Illini in fall 2017. With a fastball that sits a shade or two less than 90 mph and moves more than most prep pitchers’ offspeed pitches, it alone is enough to cause hitters trouble.
But Hutchings pairs that nasty heater with a wealth of breaking pitches as well, making it a guessing game for hitters of which pitch they will leave the batter’s box embarrassed on.
That variety of pitches allowed Hutchings to pace the area with nine wins, finish second with 87 strikeouts and also post the area’s third-best earned run average (0.58).
Hutchings said because of the success he has found, opposing teams save their best efforts for when they face him, something that brings out even more competitiveness in himself.
“I like it because I’m kind of a target. … Everyone wants to play the best, and I just embrace it,” Hutchings said. “People want to come for me, but I just keep a calm head and go to battle.”
Hutchings’ best game of his career arguably came when he was sophomore and struck out all 21 batters he faced against Beecher, the most perfect of perfect games.
“The 1927 Yankees wouldn’t have gotten good swings in,” Wills said.
Wills said this season’s game against Brother Rice, despite taking a tough-luck, 3-1 loss, might have been Hutchings’ best work yet. Facing a lineup that was two-thirds full of NCAA Division I commits, Hutchings allowed no earned runs on just two hits and nine strikeouts.
“I thought that this year, that game against Brother Rice, he was throwing the ball great against a lineup with seven Division I hitters,” Wills said. “He just said, ‘Get out of the way, and let me throw the ball.’”
Ever the team player, Hutchings didn’t point to either of those games as his favorite but rather when the Coalers used a valiant team effort to top Homewood-Flossmoor by a 6-1 margin. He didn’t pitch at all in that game but did manage to notch a pair of hits, including a home run.
“That game against Homewood-Flossmoor, we came out and had four different kids all pitch well,” Hutchings said. “And our offense just hit, hit, hit against one of the best teams in the state.”
That team-first attitude is something Wills has come to expect from his ace. He said no matter what sport Hutchings is playing, he always is ready to lead and take on whatever challenge is at hand.
“He plays quarterback for the football team; he plays guard for the basketball team; his dad [Dan Hutchings] is the athletic director here, coaches and works in the district, and that’s tough,” Wills said. “That’s something he just takes in stride; the pressure doesn’t seem to get to him.”
When Hutchings wasn’t busy preventing opponents from scoring runs, he was creating runs of his own. His hit three homers from his leadoff spot in the lineup and tied for fifth in the area in runs, crossing the plate 35 times on his way to earning awards for both pitcher and offensive player of the year on a Coalers team that compiled a 27-5 record.
“Payton was our leading hitter this year and led us in four or five offensive categories,” Wills said. “He led off all year long and was the catalyst for a solid offensive team.”
After reaching the IHSA Class 3A super-sectionals in 2018, the Coalers saw their season end prematurely in this year’s regional championship against rival Morris.
Hutchings said that ending only will motivate himself and the dozen other returning teammates the Coalers will bring back next season, when Hutchings and his classmates, who will be seniors then, will look to replicate the success they had at the middle school level when they won a state title.
“I don’t think we were satisfied with the way [the season] ended; we thought we had more in it,” Hutchings said. “But it adds more fuel to the fire for the kids coming back, just making sure that won’t happen next year.”
The Coalers’ postseason fate next year won’t be determined for another 11 months, but one thing already is certain: Opposing hitters better ready themselves to face one of the best in the Midwest.