Arizona baseball: freshmen trio helps Wildcats fight for playoff berth
Freshmen Newman, Gibbons and Kingery continue to produce at the plate
Carl Miller / Arizona Daily Wildcat
Zach Gibbons slides safely into third base. The Wildcats scored four runs to close the first inning.
After losing four of its starting nine position players to last year’s MLB Draft, the Arizona baseball team shifted from relying on experienced veterans to depending on underclassmen contributors this year.
Last season, more than half of the starters were juniors or seniors. Jump ahead a year and it hasn’t been rare to see four to five freshmen on the field at any given time.
“We’ve got a young group,” head coach Andy Lopez said. “Every four or five years, we are forced to throw some freshmen into the fire to see how they produce and handle themselves. It’s all a process and they will get better.”
During their first season as Wildcats, freshmen Kevin Newman, Scott Kingery, and Zach Gibbons have been thrust into significant roles and counted on to be key offensive cogs in the Wildcats’ new lineup.
The influx of young players has had its effect on the standings, as Arizona (31-21) sits at the edge of the NCAA Tournament, needing a series win against USC to most likely earn a bid.
The real decline from last year’s national championship team, though, has been the UA’s older pitching staff rather than the young field players.
The Wildcats rank as the top offensive team in the Pac-12, according to team batting average (.300) and total runs (339). Yet, Arizona sits ninth in total ERA (4.52).
Newman, Gibbons, and Kingery have been a big part of the offensive production.
The three regular starters have combined for nine triples, 86 runs and 146 hits. All added up and the freshmen have produced 29 percent of the triples, 28.5 percent of the hits and 25.3 percent of the runs scored this year.
In his first season at Arizona, Newman thrived in the new environment, even with the big task of replacing Alex Mejia as the Wildcats’ everyday shortstop.
Newman has started all 52 possible games this year and has compiled a .332 batting average and .776 OPS with five doubles, three triples, and 33 RBIs. Last month, he became one of just two freshmen to be placed on the Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year Watch List.
Moving from high school to college ball took some adjusting. One of the biggest challenges was the sheer pace of the game as compared to high school baseball, Newman said.
“I’ve really had to slow the game down in order to do work and get better,” he said.
“This season has definitely been all about improvement.”
Newman leads the team in hitting during road contests (.351), has recorded a team-leading 22 multi-hit games and is one of just two UA players batting over .300 in Pac-12 play.
Also, Newman currently ranks as the toughest player to strikeout in the Pac-12, whiffing only 13 times in 205 at-bats.
Newman isn’t alone, as Gibbons has also burst onto the scene. The freshman has a .299 batting average with five doubles, four triples, and 25 RBIs. Gibbons also scored 30 runs this season and has stolen 11 bases in 13 attempts.
“I’m glad that I’m able to contribute and do what I can help the team win,” Gibbons said. “My game plan at the plate has been staying through the ball, making solid contact, and taking everything one day at a time.”
Kingery hasn’t had quite the impact as the other two, but he’s still batting .252 on the season with six extra-base-hits, 21 runs and 14 RBIs. He said he can still improve at the plate, though.
“I just go out and play the game like I know how to and try to stay in the lineup,” Kingery said. “I feel like I could do a lot better; but at the freshman level, I’m pleased with where I am so far.”