Patton shows her heart is on the fieldPISCATAWAY, 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. 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. "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