Newman fills in big shoes as new shortstop for Arizona baseball
Turki Allugman / Arizona Daily Wildcat
The UA baseball team practicing at the Hi-Corbett Field.
The Arizona baseball team won its 2012 national title with a mix of talented upperclassmen and diligent freshmen.
But with many of the upperclassmen from last season gone and opening day exactly a week away, it’s the freshmen and returning sophomores that are focusing on not missing a beat.
“I’m just trying to get better every day,” freshman shortstop Kevin Newman said. “Do whatever I can to help the team get back to Omaha.”
Newman is one of the 14 true freshmen on the Wildcats’ 2013 roster, which is heavy with infielders. Newman was named the starting shortstop earlier in the winter, filling the hole left by former Pac-12 player of the year Alex Mejia when he was drafted in the fourth round of the first year MLB draft by the St. Louis Cardinals last summer.
Sophomore second baseman Trent Gilbert challenged Newman for the starting job at shortstop.
“[Newman has] been very consistent on defense,” head coach Andy Lopez said. “I’m sure he’ll get better offensively as we go on; he’s not bad, but he’s a young guy.”
While Newman has won the starting shortstop position, Gilbert will retain his starting role at second base when the first pitch is thrown next Friday against Coppin State.
Lopez compared Newman’s raw tangible skills to Mejia’s as a freshman in 2010. According to Lopez, Mejia had difficulty at first with the speed of college baseball and hit for a low average to start the season. But because he had a concrete foundation in the game, he quickly came up to speed. Mejia finished his freshman year with a .319 batting average.
Mejia isn’t the only Wildcat that can be compared to Newman.
Gilbert was in Newman’s exact shoes last season as a freshman and remembers how challenging it was.
“It’s difficult making the jump from high school to college,” Gilbert said. “You got to take your falls, but in the end it’s a good experience, and [Newman] isn’t like most freshmen. He’s got some poise.”
Gilbert started in 64 of the Wildcats’ 65 games last season. While his inexperience showed at times, he also had moments when he appeared to be a confident veteran, such as when he hit a walk-off two-strike RBI single in the bottom of the 10th in Arizona’s first game of the 2012 NCAA Super Regional.
Following that walk-off hit by Gilbert, Lopez praised the young No. 9 hitter in a post-game interview. Lopez acknowledged Gilbert’s growth in confidence at the plate over the year. Gilbert finished his freshman season with a .272 batting average and 42 RBI. In 10 postseason games, he hit for a .303 average with 9 RBI and did not commit an error in the five games at the College World Series.
“Over the entire season you gain a lot of experience and it really makes you better and more confident,” Gilbert said. “And now this season, knowing that we outplayed the best teams continues to build that confidence.”
With many of last season’s juniors gone, the burden of mentoring the freshmen falls into the hands of sophomores such as Gilbert. This task isn’t usually left to second-year players, but the second baseman has agreed to take it on.
Newman has appreciated the early guidance.
“[Gilbert] really helped me when I first got here and got me situated with what was expected,” Newman said. “We have a great relationship, supporting one another and helping each other get better.”
Lopez knows from coaching for more than 20 years that Newman will have his share of struggles as a freshman. However, Lopez is confident that experienced mentoring will help the game will come easier to the freshman, and both Newman and Gilbert will improve because of it.
“Newman is mature enough to handle the new pressure and expectation, but we try and do a pretty good job of teaching that,” Lopez said. “But I really like the job Trent [Gilbert] has done, and I really like having those two guys up the middle together.”