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Pirates' top pick Newman hitting his stride

| Saturday, April 16, 2016, 9:15 p.m.
Pirates prospect Kevin Newman works out at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates prospect Kevin Newman works out at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

Kevin Newman's rise through the ranks of amateur and professional baseball has been steady.

So has the shortstop's rise up the batting order.

An All-California Interscholastic Federation San Diego Section pick in high school, he was Poway High School's No. 3 hitter. At Arizona, he was the back end of one of college baseball's most lethal one-two punches, along with fellow All-American Scott Kingery.

Just a handful of games into his first full season in the Pirates organization, the No. 19 overall pick in the 2015 draft has been settling in as High-A Bradenton's leadoff man. Manager Michael Ryan likes what he sees.

“He's smart enough that he still knows how to work a count and he has a pretty good game plan when he goes up to the plate, and he's sticking with it so far,” Ryan said. “As a leadoff guy, you want to work the counts. You want to get on base somehow, but if you're a quality hitter you don't want to take away that aggressiveness, either.”

With the wind swirling early in the season at Bradenton's McKechnie Field, Ryan has been encouraging his players to focus on hard, gap-to-gap contact, which Newman said is fine by him. His success has been inside the fences — Newman totaled just five home runs across his three college, two Cape Code Baseball League and one-plus minor league seasons — even as a No. 3 hitter.

“We hit him third and he didn't hit a home run in high school, but he was a tough out,” said Deron Johnson, Newman's hitting coach at Poway. “It's just kind of who he is. He's a tough kid. We were laughing before he left for spring training because he said, ‘God, I think the most pressure I've felt in baseball was when I was hitting third for you guys.' ”

Newman was hitting .296 seven games into his High-A career and posted a .306 batting average in 23 games with Low-A Charleston to end last season. Newman said he briefly felt pressure during his first stretch in the minor leagues, in which he hit .226 in 38 games with short-season Single-A Morgantown.

“I think it was just a matter of getting the professional jitters out of my system,” Newman said. “I went in being the first round pick, and I might've put a little too much pressure on myself and thought I had to do too much rather than just be who I am and be the person that they drafted.”

The guy the Pirates drafted is the only two-time batting champion in Cape Cod Baseball League history. He also hit .370 and struck out just 15 times in 227 at-bats during his final season at Arizona.

Ask those who know him, and they list the multitude of reasons Newman has maintained his level of success. To Johnson, whose father, also named Deron, spent 16 years in the major leagues, the key is Newman's uncommon mental toughness. To Ryan, it's coachability and a desire to improve.

To Kingery, his roommate and double play partner at Arizona-turned-Florida State League opponent with the Phillies' High-A affiliate, the Clearwater Threshers, the reason is unrelenting competitiveness. It's in Newman's blood: his immediate family includes three Division I athletes (Newman's father and two sisters) and a professional ski instructor (Newman's mother).

“It was always a competition to him. Especially pingpong. He went on and on about how good he was at pingpong, but I would always tell him, ‘Yeah, you haven't played me yet.' That fired him up a little bit,” Kingery said, laughing. “To me, it's an urban legend because I haven't seen him.”

Said Newman, in jest but true to form: “I think I'm probably better at pingpong than I am at baseball.”

Andrew Erickson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aerickson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @AErickson_Trib.

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