Newman a grinder at plate and at SS

Photo for the Mirror by Chuck Meyers Kevin Newman wasn’t the Pirates’ first choice at shortstop this season, but it’s his job now after a solid start.

PITTSBURGH — Whether he’s at bat or in the field, Pittsburgh Pirates rookie shortstop Kevin Newman is an advocate of putting his nose to the grindstone.

“I’m just competing,” Newman was saying recently at PNC Park. “I’m stepping into the (batter’s) box and trying to compete as best as I can. It’s my mentality to compete (on) every pitch, and just to try to make hard, solid contact with the bat.”

Newman, 25, has taken charge of the Pirates’ starting shortstop position through his hard work and tenacious approach. Nothing has come easy for him.

It didn’t last September, when Newman was summoned by the Pirates from Class AAA Indianapolis and made a cameo appearance in the major leagues, playing 31 games and batting just .209, with 19 hits in 91 plate appearances.

It didn’t in spring training, when Newman was beaten out for the starting shortstop job by Erik Gonzalez, who the Pirates acquired in an offseason trade with the Cleveland Indians.

But Newman kept himself prepared, and kept on plugging. He got his window of opportunity back when Gonzalez suffered the misfortune of a broken collarbone after colliding with center fielder Starling Marte while both were chasing a pop-up in an April 19 game against the San Francisco Giants at PNC Park.

With Gonzalez placed on the injured list and expected to be out 10 to 12 weeks after undergoing surgery in late April, Newman and highly-touted prospect Cole Tucker split playing time at shortstop for awhile this past spring before Newman won the job outright and Tucker was sent back to Indianapolis to hone his skills.

The 6-foot, 195-pound Newman admitted that while he wanted to win the job in spring training, not doing so enabled him to refocus.

“It was a goal of mine obviously to win the job, but when they told me that, ‘Hey, we’re going with Gonzo,’ I shifted my focus immediately just to try and make the team, to try to be a player that they could call on, and use in any situation to help win games,” Newman said.

“It definitely was a battle,” Newman said. “I just showed up at the field every day trying to be ready for any situation that I’m in, and through some unfortunate events — obviously, we had some guys go down — what has happened, has happened.”

What has happened is that Newman — a Poway, Calif. native who played three years of collegiate baseball at the University of Arizona before being picked up by the Pirates in the first round of the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft — has developed into a very consistent, reliable player that the Pirates have been using for the past several weeks in the leadoff position of their batting order.

Newman enters tonight’s opening game of the Pirates’ three-game series in Houston against the Astros with a .314 batting average (54 hits in 172 plate appearances). He has 10 doubles, two triples, two home runs, and 17 RBIs in 50 games played this season.

“I take the same mentality when I’m hitting leadoff as I do when I’m hitting eighth in the order,” said Newman, who had batted eighth in the Pirates’ lineup early this season. “I just try to put the barrel (of the bat) on the ball, compete, and try to set the table for the guys behind me.”

Newman, who also possesses good foot speed, did say that batting in the leadoff spot presents challenges as well as opportunities.

“It’s tough (hitting) at the top of the lineup,” Newman said. “If you’re in a close game, you’re going to get an extra at-bat against a closer or a good bullpen arm. If you look at it from that aspect, it’s definitely difficult.

“But those are things that you can’t really control, so as a hitter, you just try to focus on what you can control and do anything you can to help the team win,” Newman said.

Newman has applied a similarly diligent work ethic in the field at shortstop, where he has 50 putouts and 98 assists in 153 chances so far this season.

He served an apprenticeship there last September under outgoing veteran Jordy Mercer, who was a great help to him.

“He helped me quite a bit,” Newman said of Mercer, who is now with the Detroit Tigers. “When you first get called up here, it’s kind of a whirlwind. He helped me with any questions that I had, and with handling the stresses and struggles. Now I get my work in before the games, and go out there during the games and make plays for the pitchers.”

Newman has done that very well this season, according to Pirates left fielder Corey Dickerson.

“I enjoy watching him each and every day, and I also enjoy playing behind him,” Dickerson said. “He’s been playing and gaining some confidence here. He realizes that he can play up here, and have an impact, and once you get that mind-set, your play begins to shine.”

Newman — who split the 2017 season between Altoona and Indianapolis, hitting .259 in 82 games with four home runs and 30 RBI for the Class AA Curve — doesn’t think much about individual numbers and goals now that he’s with the Pirates.

“I haven’t really thought too much about them,” Newman said. “At the end of the day, I show up here, try to contribute, and help the team win games. That’s really the bottom line.”

Newman file

Age: 25.

Residence: A native of Poway, Calif., Newman resides in Scottsdale, Ariz. during the offseason.

2019 season: Now the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting shortstop, Newman is batting in the leadoff spot and has a .314 batting average (54 hits in 172 plate appearances) in 50 games this season, with 10 doubles, two triples, two home runs, and 17 RBIs. Defensively, he has 50 putouts and 98 assists in 153 chances.

Notable: Newman was a first-round pick by the Pirates in the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft after having played three years of Division I collegiate baseball at the University of Arizona.

Personal: Newman is married (wife, Shayne).