Indians’ Ngoepe Strives To Be Known For More Than Elite Defense

Ngoepe-by-Adam-Pintar

It was the top of the eighth inning of April 16th’s battle with 2015 postseason nemesis Columbus Clippers when Indianapolis Indians’ shortstop Gift Ngoepe generated Oohs and Ahhs from the 8,000 fans filling Victory Field. Clippers’ Anthony Recker ripped a grounder seemingly destined for left field, but Ngoepe had other ideas. The 26-year-old South African ranged to his left, into the outfield grass, collected the ground ball with ease, sprung to his feet and fired across to first-baseman Jason Rogers to retire Recker by a step. Applause ensued, and yet it was just another day in the field for Ngoepe.

Baseball America ranks Ngoepe as the top defensive infielder in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, and with plays like this it’s no wonder, but he has also made his mark at the plate. After starting the season 0-8, he went 3-4 in the Indians’ home opener on April 14th, with two doubles and a single, while scoring twice and driving in one. After pulling the ball on a regular basis last season, the left-handed Ngoepe has widened his scope and is using the entire field.

“Last year, I pulled the ball a whole lot, and I kept missing the slider, or I’d take the slider when I should’ve hit the slider,” Ngoepe says. “Now, me working the other way, working more right-center and right field gives me a better chance to recognize that slider a little bit more, to be able to put a better swing on it.”

He credits his approach in large part to his experience as a member of Team South Africa in the World Baseball Classic. He performed in the 2012 WBC and this past February in the 2017 qualifying round. Ngoepe has learned plenty since his 2012 appearance, professing patience amidst the pressure that comes with his leadership role.

“I thought to myself I had to drive balls into the gap, hit home-runs and do all of these kinds of things,” Ngoepe says regarding his first go-around. “So, the next Classic we went to, in February, I thought, let me be myself this time and get on base and make things happen.”

A defensive wiz on a gamely basis, that approach offensively has carried over in spurts so far this season.

“When I got to Spring Training everything was much easier,” Ngoepe says. “I didn’t have as much stress. I didn’t have as much frustration, trying to do too much, showing the coach that, Hey, I can do this, I can do this. Being in the Classic kind of simplified it. This is who I am. I like to have fun, but how can I have fun and do my job at the same time?”

Making an impact both sides of the ball, not just in the field, he’s finding an answer to that question for Indianapolis.

Photo by Adam Pintar