Ex-Curve infielder Ngoepe happy to rejoin ­team

Photo for the Mirror by Rob Lynn The Curve congratulate each other after their win.

Gift Ngoepe already has made history in the game of baseball, something he can be incredibly proud of that no one can ever take away.

Now, Ngoepe just wants to have fun again playing baseball.

He’ll get that chance coming back to a very familiar place.

Ngoepe is back with the Curve four years after last appearing with the club, and he will be manning his usual shortstop position for the foreseeable future. He rejoined the team Thursday but was not on the active roster for Altoona’s 6-3 win over Binghamton before 4,398 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

“I’m glad to be back, and it feels comfortable to be back here,” Ngoepe said after the game.

Now 29, Ngoepe was playing in Triple-A with the Phillies at Lehigh Valley until getting released last week. The Pirates signed him to a minor league deal and will add him to the Curve roster this weekend.

Ngoepe is the greatest defensive player in Curve history, showing off his remarkable glove skills from 2013-15. He got better as a hitter, which ultimately allowed him to make professional baseball history.

On April 26, 2017, Ngoepe became the first African-born player to reach the major leagues. He overcame long odds to make that dream a reality, and it’s something he will always be known for — in this country and in his native South Africa.

“I’m very proud of myself for accomplishing the things that I wanted to accomplish when I first got signed and making it to the big leagues,” Ngoepe said. “The people that pushed me, I’m thankful for them.

“I’m thankful for the Pirates giving me that opportunity and allowing me to have such a long career. I thank them for the opportunity to get to the big leagues and make history for my continent, for South Africa and for myself, and for making my dreams come true.”

Ngoepe played 28 games for the Pirates in 2017 and 13 for the Blue Jays in 2018. He played well defensively, but offensive struggles denied him a longer big league tenure, as he hit .181 (13-for-72) with no homers and six RBIs in his 41 games.

Ngoepe received an enormous amount of attention in the baseball world for his personal story and achievement of getting to the majors. But after going back to the minor leagues, he’s had a tough go of it on the field the past couple of years, hitting .168 in Triple-A last season and .221 this season.

It’s not ideal for Ngoepe being back in Double-A at his age, but he always looks at the bright side of things, and he definitely sees one in his return to the Curve.

“My main objective is come here and have fun,” he said. “Baseball can also become like work, you have to get the job done, you have to put up numbers, you have to do this. And the older you get, the more those results determine what your future is going to look like. So, me coming back here, I just want to come back and relax and do my thing with no added pressure.

“It’s a great opportunity being back, getting an opportunity to play again. Previous years, I haven’t really got a lot of playing time, so I’m trying to get back to what I can do being here, back with the Pirates, back where I started my whole career. I thank the Pirates for this opportunity, and I’m just going to go out there and do my thing.”

His thing not only includes flashing some serious leather, but also being a team leader and doing all the little things it takes to help a team win.

“I think it’s one of the reasons why they brought him here,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said of Ngoepe’s leadership. “We have a younger group. We have a young group of infielders, guys that can learn from Gift. This guy’s been in the major leagues, been in Triple-A, he’s had success. Unbelievable fielder. They’ll watch how he goes about his business, how he prepares.”

Ryan said Ngoepe will play primarily shortstop, moving promising prospect Robbie Glendinning to third and second. Ngoepe also will play some second.

“He’s getting another opportunity here, so we’ll see what he can do,” Ryan said.

Ngoepe’s younger brother, Victor, plays in the Pirates’ system for low-A West Virginia, so he could be up with the Curve in a year or two.

As for Gift, his long-term goal is to get back to the big leagues. But for now, he knows he’ll be playing in a comfortable spot back in Altoona.

“I had a phenomenal time here,” Ngoepe said. “My three years that I was here I had a great time, enjoyed playing at this field. They do a fantastic job on the field, and the crowd is just electric every night.”

Game recap

Key player: LHP Domingo Robles gave up two runs in the first inning but settled down after that and went six innings, allowing three total runs, to win for the Curve.

Key play: Altoona scored four runs in the third inning to take control, capped by a two-run homer from SS Robbie Glendinning.

Key stat: The Curve are back to five games above .500, matching a season high.

How they scored

Top 1st: Cecchini walked, Sanchez both scored on Carpio single (0-2).

Bottom 2nd: Suiter solo homer (1-2).

Bottom 3rd: Pope singled, scored on Tolman fielder’s choice (2-2); Sanchez error scored Tolman (3-2); Sharpe singled, scored on Glendinning two-run homer (5-2).

Top 6th: Barnes solo homer (5-3).

Bottom 7th: Pope singled, scored on Sanchez error (6-3).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: LHP Domingo Robles (2-1) got the win Thursday for the Curve, giving up three runs on seven hits over six innings. RHP Andrew Church (0-2) took the loss for Binghamton.

SAFE AT FIRST: RHP Matt Eckelman improved to 12-for-12 in save opportunities for Altoona with a perfect ninth inning.

STEALING SECOND: 1B Jerrick Suiter homered for the Curve in the second inning, his third of the season.

ROUNDING THIRD: Former Curve OF and Pirates first-round draft pick Barrett Barnes went 1-for-3 with a solo homer in the sixth inning for Binghamton. Barnes played for Altoona from 2015-16.

HEADING HOME: These teams will play a doubleheader Saturday beginning at 4:30 p.m. It’s a makeup from a game rained out at Binghamton on June 16.

— Cory Giger

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