PITTSBURGH -- If you want to see how far Kevin Newman has come in the last year, look at what he did Friday night.
Last September, baseball was as hard as it’s ever been for Newman. He was physically spent, struggling to keep up with the speed of the game and doing everything he could just to get to the finish line in his debut. But there he was at PNC Park, three days from the end of his first full season in the Majors, ripping a walk-off homer to left field off Raisel Iglesias and sending the Pirates to a 6-5 win over the Reds.
“I take a lot of pride in this year compared to last year,” Newman said. “I worked really hard in the offseason. I worked really hard in Spring Training. I feel like I’m seeing the benefits of it throughout the year. From that side of it, I absolutely am proud.”
Consider this: Newman didn’t hit a home run in 97 plate appearances for the Pirates last year. He only went deep 15 times during his 402 games in the Minor Leagues. After launching two balls into the left-field seats on Friday night, Newman has hit 12 homers in his impressive rookie campaign.
Newman, one of the bright spots of this mostly dismal season, has been personally responsible for a handful of their most memorable wins. Friday was Newman’s fourth walk-off of the season, and he’s done it a different way every time.
First came a double on April 6, also off Iglesias, then a walk-off walk against the Padres on June 23 and a single on Aug. 16 against the Cubs’ Brandon Kintzler. Newman saved the long ball for last, crushing a 1-1 slider from Iglesias out to left field with two outs in the ninth inning.
Is there something about Newman that allows him to thrive in those situations?
“They’re not easy. Everybody talks about wanting to be the guy, well, then be the guy,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “There’s a lot of guys who get those opportunities, and they’re not the guy. He’s been the guy.”
High above the field in the AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh broadcast booth, Steve Blass -- ending his emotional final telecast before retiring at the end of the season -- stood up and shouted, “Unbelievable! You can’t write this script! Thank you, you fabulous Buccos, thank you! What a send-off! Oh, my goodness! Hello, Newman!”
After an uncomfortable introduction late last season, this year has been more of a coming-out party for the 2015 first-round Draft pick. He has established himself as Pittsburgh’s everyday shortstop and leadoff hitter heading into the offseason, and the 26-year-old is batting .310 -- the eighth-best average in the National League -- with an .806 OPS.
“It’s just so fun to see,” Hurdle said. “If we could take some of the facial expressions from last year in September and match them up with this year in September, it’d be a nice little contrast, before-and-after picture – and he’s earned it.”
Friday was not only Newman’s first multihomer game at home -- and just the second two-homer game of his career overall -- but it tripled his career home run total at PNC Park. Only one of his first 10 homers in the Majors came at the ballpark along the Allegheny River, then he went and hit two in Pittsburgh’s final home series.
Newman’s first blast of the night, a three-run shot, was unusual in that it came on a 3-0 fastball from Anthony DeSclafani. Before that, Newman had seen 18 3-0 pitches in the Majors and swung at none of them.
“I was just saving it all year,” Newman said.
Not only are Newman’s numbers in a better place, but his confidence appears to be as well. He had an uncharacteristically tough series in Milwaukee, going 0-for-9 while the Pirates were swept last weekend, but he bounced back in a big way on Friday.
“Just because you don’t get a hit for two days doesn’t mean that you have to change everything. I stuck to what I know and things that have worked for me,” Newman said. “I wasn’t trying to overhaul my swing. This series coming back after the Milwaukee series has shown that it’s part of the game. You’ve got to be able to look past it, and you’ve got to be able to get through it. It’s not all ups. There’s quite a few downs.”