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Newman's new muscle on display in big day

Shortstop goes 3-for-4 while building a case for a roster spot
@adamdberry
March 14, 2019

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Had it been last season, the ball might not have cleared the fence; it might have been a double off the wall, or even an out. But in the seventh inning of the Pirates’ 11-2 win against the Phillies on Thursday, Kevin Newman pulled a pitch from

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Had it been last season, the ball might not have cleared the fence; it might have been a double off the wall, or even an out.

But in the seventh inning of the Pirates’ 11-2 win against the Phillies on Thursday, Kevin Newman pulled a pitch from Edubray Ramos out to left field for his first home run of the spring. The two-run shot was Newman’s third hit, his fourth hard-hit ball of the game and an encouraging sign as the rookie competes for Pittsburgh’s starting shortstop job.

“A ball like that, I wasn’t trying to do anything crazy or trying to hit a home run,” Newman said. “I was trying to hit a ball hard. A ball like that goes out, that shows a lot of the offseason work.”

Newman hit .209/.247/.231, struck out 23 times and committed four errors over 31 games with Pittsburgh in 2018. He was physically drained by that point of the year, having lost about 15 pounds during the Triple-A season. It sapped him of his strength and some of his speed, which is why the Pirates don’t think they’ve seen the real Newman in the Majors yet.

Newman put on 15 pounds of muscle over the winter and built up his arm strength to handle long throws from deep in the hole at short. This spring, he’s been making minor adjustments to simplify his swing. It was all on display Thursday as he doubled, homered, stole a base and played a strong game defensively.

“The cool part is to see it transfer in a game like this, because you can do all the work you want in BP and there comes a point in time where you would like to go ahead and get the barrel out and drill a couple balls in the game, and he did today,” said manager Clint Hurdle. “That just gives more concrete evidence that he might be hunting the good stuff.”

The Pirates won’t overreact to the results of one Spring Training performance. Newman was 4-for-22 at the plate before Thursday’s game, and he still must earn a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Newman didn’t want to make too much of one good day at the ballpark, either.

“To have a day like this, it feels great. But do I take a day like this day and think, ‘Oh, I’m good’? By no means,” he said. “I’m going to come to the yard ready to play the next game and try to build off of it, continue to work and continue to get better in every aspect.”

To win the starting job, Newman will have to beat out Erik Gonzalez, a player the Pirates have raved about since acquiring him from the Indians.

Gonzalez is hitting just .120 with a .425 OPS, 11 strikeouts and two errors in 10 games this spring. Some might want to see Jung Ho Kang at shortstop given his improved physical condition, but Kang is focused on playing third base. So there is an opening for Newman if he continues to play solid defense and hit like he did on Thursday.

Newman has always hit for average -- he batted .302 in Triple-A last season -- but he put up a career .389 slugging percentage in the Minors. He hasn’t overhauled his swing, but he has made small tweaks to drive the ball with more authority.

“It’s more aggressiveness and simplifying my move pre-pitch. Today I shortened up my load. I was a little bit later, a little bit shorter,” he said. “It’s not like I’m trying to hit more home runs or I’m trying to hit the ball in the air or anything like that.”

So, what can he do to maintain his strength throughout the year and make sure those balls keep clearing the fence?

“Lift a lot. Eat a lot,” Newman said, smiling. “That’s the plan. And stay hydrated.”

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.