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College | Story | 4/17/2015

Arizona's dynamic desert duo

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Arizona Athletics

Week 10 Weekend Preview

College baseball history books are replete with the exploits of storied middle-infield tandems, elite shortstops and second basemen who could hit, field and run, and worked together in a symphony of one. As history would have it, Andy Lopez has been involved with two of the best such tandems.

Lopez, the 14th-year head coach at the University of Arizona who spent seven seasons (1995-2001) at the University of Florida, had the pleasure of coaching future big-league infielders Mark Ellis and David Eckstein to the 1996 College World Series while with the Gators.

With junior shortstop Kevin Newman and junior second baseman Scott Kingery, Lopez has another pair of kings this season at Arizona.

“I’ve been very fortunate in the 38 years that I’ve done this – I’ve coached some quality kids – and those two guys (Newman and Kingery) are as good as you’ll find,” Lopez told PG in a telephone interview Thursday before the Wildcats boarded a plane to fly to Corvallis, Ore., for an important Pacific-12 Conference three-game series at No. 21 Oregon State. “They’re good young men and they’re going to be good professional players one day.”

Ellis went on to play 12 seasons in the major leagues with the Athletics, Rockies, Dodgers and Cardinals. Eckstein played 10 big-league seasons with the Angels, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks and Padres, was a two-time All-Star and was named the Most Valuable Player at the 2006 World Series while playing with the Cards.

“They were obviously very good up the middle as a twosome and (Newman and Kingery) are very good, as well,” Lopez said. “I compare both these guys to Eckstein and Ellis because they’re very similar in their makeups. David Eckstein and Mark Ellis were quiet, competitive guys and not flamboyant by any stretch of the imagination.”

Heading into this weekend’s games in Corvallis, Newman and Kingery have combined to start 264 games for Lopez since the outset of the 2013 season – 144 for Newman and 120 for Kingery. They have a combined 70 stolen bases and although neither is considered a power hitter, they have used their spots at the top of the order to drive in 177 runs; they have scored 214 runs.

Both are on the 2015 USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Watch List as candidates for the governing body’s Amateur Player of the Year.

Newman, 6-foot-1 and 180-pounds, has been the Wildcats’ starting shortstop since he stepped foot on UA’s Tucson campus; Kingery was a starter in the outfield his freshman and sophomore seasons. Lopez needed to fill a hole at second base this season so he called on Kingery to plug it. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound athlete had played shortstop during his prep career at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix.

Newman and Kingery not only share the two spots in the middle of the infield and the two spots at the top of the batting order for the Wildcats, they also share living arrangements – they’re roommates and the best of friends – and enjoy a great rapport.

Having to make the transition from the outfield back to the infield put some pressure on Kingery and he leaned on his good buddy a lot during the fall practice sessions. Newman helped him with positioning when it came to bunt defenses and first-and-third situations and offered some valuable tips.

“He’s a good athlete so it’s really easy for him to (make the transition),” Lopez said. “My biggest concern was how he would handle the pivot at second base – it’s an intricate kind of skill and a really crucial thing in terms of his abilities at second base – but he’s done an A-plus job with that.”

NEWMAN ARRIVED IN TUCSON FOR HIS FRESHMAN SEASON in the 2012-13 school year right out of Poway (Calif.) High School and immediately assumed the starting shortstop position for the defending College World Series national champion Wildcats; he has started every game UA has played since its 2013 season opener.

He was a Pac-12 all-conference performer as a freshman in 2013 and was a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American. Newman hit .304 with four triples, 10 doubles, 25 RBI and 29 runs last season, and was named to the Pac-12 All-Conference Team and Pac-12 All-Defensive Team.

Perfect Game named him a Third-Team Preseason All-American this year and he was a preseason all-American by two other media outlets. He has ratcheted his performances up a notch, hitting .390 (55-for-191) a home run – the first of us UA career – 12 doubles, 28 RBI and 34 runs; his 12 stolen bases in 15 attempts leads the team.

“The way I describe (Newman) is he’s a very boring, efficient shortstop,” Lopez said with a chuckle. “He’s not real flashy, and I’ve had my share of flashy guys, too.”

This past summer, Newman became the first player in the long and storied history of the summer collegiate Cape Cod League to win back-to-back batting titles. A two-time Cape Cod League All-Star, he hit .380 in 31 regular-season games, with a home run and seven doubles, 20 RBI, 20 runs scored and 10 stolen bases. But the summertime aside, he has especially enjoyed his three years in Tucson.

“Other than missing out on the postseason, it’s been everything that I expected,” Newman said over the telephone before hopping on the plane to Corvallis. “I came here to get bigger and stronger and become a better baseball player, and all those things have happened.

“We’ve missed the postseason the last couple of years and that’s something that we’re looking to turn around this year … but school and baseball and coaches and friends, they’ve all be exactly what I expected.”

Scott Kingery (Photo: Arizona Athletics)

One of his closest friends is Kingery, and the two are certainly clicking in the middle of the infield; Newman wasn’t surprised that Kingery took to the position so seamlessly. “He’s a great player and his attributes at second base are pretty much unmatched, in my opinion,” Newman said. “To have him over there and have him as such a good friend and a roommate makes it all the better.”

Kingery, who attended Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, was named a preseason all-American by three media outlets coming into this season, even though it was known he would be making a position change.

“I love playing second base; I played there a little bit in high school but it was mostly at shortstop,” Kingery said is a separate telephone interview. “It was kind of difficult at first coming from the outfield back to the infield but now I feel really comfortable with it. I took a ton of reps during the fall practices and it feels more comfortable than I’ve ever been in the infield.”

Hitting seems to be what Kingery does best. He is coming off a 2014 season in which he hit .354 with a home run, four triples and 11 doubles. He drove in 26 runs and scored 41, and with a .456 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot he stole 19 bases in 23 attempts. At season’s end, he was named to both the Pac-12 all-conference and all-academic teams.

Those efforts set the stage for this season when he has hit at a pace unequaled by anyone else in the country. His .463 batting average (68-for-147) leads the D-I charts by 36 points over his closest challenger, and his four home runs, five triples and 12 doubles have led to 102 total bases, fifth best in the country. He boasts a .494 on-base percentage; he has driven in 29 runs and scored 42.

“I feel like I’m seeing the pitches really well and getting a pitch that I can hit and putting my swing on it. I feel like anything I’m swinging at right now is getting squared-up and I’m putting a good part of the barrel on it, so right now everything is working for me at the plate,” Kingery said.

Added Lopez: “He’s got good balance, he does a good job with his lower half, he’s got real good hand-eye coordination and he’s got some bat-speed. He’s been successful his whole time here with us and he’ll be successful at the next level.”

THIS WEEKEND’S SERIES WITH OREGON STATE IS A BIG ONE, both for the Wildcats and the Beavers. UA is in fifth place in the Pac-12 standings at 8-7 while OSU is right behind at 6-6; both teams are 23-11 overall.

“I definitely think this is a huge series for us,” Kingery said. “We’re figuring some stuff out with our pitching rotation and hopefully that’s going to work out well for us this weekend.”

The Wildcats were very good during the early nonconference portion of their schedule, compiling a 15-4 record with their only losses to then-nationally ranked Rice and Mississippi State. They were even better at the outset of Pac-12 play, winning seven of their first nine league games, including 3-0 series sweeps at Stanford and against Oregon in Tucson.

Things went south rapidly the last two weekends. They got swept by No. 13 Southern California in a three-game set in Tucson and then lost the first two to arch-rival and No. 5-ranked Arizona State in Phoenix; they managed to salvage the series finale with ASU Monday night.

“The last couple of weekends have been a little dark, but I was really proud of the way they bounced back on Monday,” Lopez said. “They’re talented enough to get some things done but we obviously have to be very delicate with our mound situation and guys really have to be on the money; we don’t have a lot of margin for error there.”

Lopez admits that coming into the season he thought the Wildcats would be a little “soft” – his word – on the mound, especially with 2013 closer Mathew Troupe slow to come back from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in March 2014.

At the same time, Lopez is able to march out a veteran group of six everyday starters that include a senior, four juniors and a sophomore who are all hitting .318 or better; UA is second in the nation with a .324 team batting average (Morehead State came into the weekend No. 1 at .327).

“We felt going into this year that we’d be pretty good because we’ve got older guys,” Lopez said, pointing to senior catcher Riley Moore, Kingery and Newman, all starters since they were freshmen. “You have three guys up the middle who all have 400 to 600 at-bats so we kind of knew what we had going into it.”

In addition to what Kingery and Newman are doing at the plate, sophomore Bobby Dalbec from Parker, Colo., is hitting .343 with team-highs of 10 home runs and 36 RBI, and Moore, from Santa Barbara, Calif.,  is at .318 with three home runs, six doubles and 28 RBI.

“Our offense is really good this year,” Newman said. “Last year I put a lot of pressure on myself in terms of trying to do too much but this year I don’t feel like I have to that with the guys around me, and that’s a big thing. I just came into this season trying to do my best, and work hard and help get this team as far as we can go.”

Lopez in no way tries to downplay his players’ ability to swing the bats but he is quick to point out that the team plays its home games in Tucson – in the desert – where the infields are hard and fast, the ball carries well and players get a lot of hits; it’s an inescapable fact of nature. That observation in no way detracts from what makes this team special, according to Lopez – its competitive nature.

That is in stark contrast to the 2014 team he put on the field, a group that finished 22-33 overall and a dismal 9-21 in Pac-12 play. But while the 2014 Wildcats lacked that competitive desire, the 2015 version is just the opposite. “I’ve never concerned myself with this group in terms of their ability to compete; they’ve done a marvelous job of that,” Lopez said. “This has been a very good, solid competitive group.”

THE COMPETITIVENESS IS EMBODIED AT THE TOP OF THE BATTING ORDER and in the middle of the infield by Newman and Kingery. With Kingery in the leadoff spot and Newman batting second, a battle within a battle is quick to develop – all for the good of the team, of course.

“We’re both competitive and that really helps because if I get a hit, he says, ‘OK, well, now I want a hit,’” Kingery explained. “That really helps us out, especially with us being the first two (batters) in the lineup because if I get a hit and he follows me up with a hit, then we have two runners on for our big bats coming up next. It’s huge for us to be one-two in the lineup and just feed off each other to get the whole offense going.”

It’s what drives them, according to Newman: “It’s just an on-going competition between us and hopefully that will benefit the team because we’re just out there trying to compete and trying to do the best we can,” he said.

Lopez seemed stumped when asked if the team benefitted more from the dynamic duo’s exploits in the middle of the infield or at the top of the batting order. After a few seconds of deliberation, he decided that with this particular team their contributions at the plate are probably the most important.

The pitching staff has struggled and the Wildcats are going to have to keep hitting and scoring runs if they’re going to be successful. “They’re very, very good on both ends of the game, but if you shut those two guys down offensively we have a tough time scoring, so we need them offensively,” Lopez said.

These two guys have always hit the ball, even back during their high school and summer travel ball days. Newman played in four PG WWBA tournaments with the San Diego Show and was at the 2011 PG WWBA World Championship with the Ohio Warhawks; Kingery played at the 2011 PG/EvoShield Upperclass National Championship with the AZ Athletics.

Because they could always hit, they take more pride in the way they have adapted to each other playing side-by-side in the infield.

“We work really well together,” Kingery said. “In practice we’ll try some things – some situational things – and we just have a really good relationship. Working up the middle, we just have a really good chemistry and we know where each other is going to be, and it’s working out really well.”

As the season unwinds, the words “2015 MLB June Amateur Draft” and “first-round” are becoming more and more synonymous with both players. The consistent success Newman has enjoyed both at Arizona and in the Cape Cod League makes him the higher ranked of the two draft prospects, but the longer Kingery leads the nation in hitting, the more his draft stock will soar.

“It’s hard not to; I do my best to really not focus on it,” Newman said when asked if he thinks about the draft. “I have people telling me about all the (draft) rankings and all that stuff. I do the best I can to filter it out and really just focus on the task at hand, which is to play the best I can and try to only control everything I can control. I can’t control what happens in the draft. I can only control what happens today.”

While the former Florida Gators Ellis and Eckstein went on to enjoy excellent big-league careers, they were never paired in the middle-infield with the same big-league club. A questioner reminded Kingery that it in fact happened in the not-so-distant past when former Louisiana State middle-infielders Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot played side-by-side for the Chicago Cubs in 2007.

“That would be awesome,” Kingery said of the thought he and Newman could one day surround second base playing for the same team in a big-league game. “If we both end up on a major league club together that would be great. We work really well up the middle now so I’d like to see what that would be like down the road.”

The chances of that happening are very slim, of course, but Lopez sees things working out in the long run. “The thing with these two guys is, they’ll be a joy for somebody in their (MLB) organizations,” he concluded. “They’re good guys who work hard and they’re good players on top of that.”

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