Once Heston Kjerstad started hitting, he didn’t stop.
The No. 2 overall pick by the Orioles out of Arkansas in the 2020 MLB Draft, a player that went 27 months between his last college game and first pro game, he has been making up for lost time since late last season.
The myocarditis diagnosis he dealt with kept him on the sidelines for a long time and it took him time last year – he played his first game for Low Single-A Delmarva on June 10 – to get his stroke back. But now it is back with full force.
He was starting to really swing it late last season for High-A Aberdeen, then was named MVP of the Arizona Fall League. In the first O’s spring training game in March, he homered twice and then he went on to produce an OPS of 1.219 in big league spring training. And now Kjerstad, 24, has quickly, become a handful for Double-A Eastern League pitchers.
“Really, really exciting,” Bowie manager Kyle Moore told me Friday at Prince George’s Stadium. “Got off to the same start that he did in spring training and as he did in the Fall League. It carried over. He looks like a middle of the lineup big league bat. Knows the strike zone as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. That’s exciting.”
Through Sunday's game for Bowie, Kjerstad had homered in three of his past four games and in four of his previous six. Where last year he hit five homers in the minors over 243 at-bats, this season he has hit five in his first nine games and 35 at-bats for the Baysox.
He is 11-for-35, batting .314/.429/.800/1.229 at this early point for the Baysox.
At that hitters park in Bowie, Kjerstad might put up some stunning numbers.
“I hate to even put numbers on it, but high double digits, 30 to 35 homers, and you know like a 100-RBI guy if he were to stick here all year. One thing that surprised me not having seen him all that much, he can drive the ball to all fields. Not just a pull guy. He can hit a good 95 plus fastball out of the park to left center and if that pitch turns into a slider he can hit it out to right center. He is an all fields, big power guy. That could play at the big league level,” said Moore.
Kjerstad hit four homers in 37 at-bats for the Orioles this spring, including some massive shots with big distance.
“Getting off to that start was so big for him,” Moore believes. “Sure, he had the Fall League experience, but he had the chance to show the major league staff what he can do. And he just feels like he belongs and brings it right to us. Getting off to that start had to be so big for him.”
Kjerstad’s fast start for Bowie is such that Moore believes there will be times in late-game situations where he will be pitched around.
“I think you will see with no runners on, nobody out they will challenge him but when the score is close with runners on base late, he may not get challenged. When you see a big-time starter, those guys will challenge him. Because they have huge fastballs and they think they are the best in the league as well and those are the matchups you live for,” he said.
Kjerstad is still primarily an outfielder, but he is adding first base to his defensive resume at Bowie. This provides the Orioles another spot where they could play him down the road in the big leagues where they could have the option to use him in left field, right field, at DH or first.
Moore said he expects to use Kjerstad two or three times a week during each six-game series at first base. Some weeks he may try to get him four starts there.
“The ground he has covered from spring training to now is enormous and he’s not too bad over there. We just need to see what he can become there. I think from being an outfielder and now going to first base, your footwork is so key. It’s about footwork for him. Holding a runner and then transitioning into a good position to field. I think he can gain that since he is so athletic,” Moore stated.
Bowie lost 4-2 in 10 innings to Akron Sunday and is now 4-5. Garrett Stallings pitched six scoreless for Bowie yesterday. Before Sunday's game, Bowie put catcher Connor Pavolony on the injured list with left hand soreness and added catcher Randy Florentino from Low Single-A Delmarva.
Elsewhere on the farm Sunday: Triple-A Norfolk is now 10-4 after winning 7-1 at Nashville as Joey Ortiz had three hits and two RBIs and Josh Lester hit his fifth homer. Lefty Drew Rom threw five scoreless, pitched 11 scoreless in two stats in the series and improved to 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA.
Infieder Jordan Westburg missed another game with lower back tightness. And outfielder Hudson Haskin was 2-for-2 yesterday but then left the game with left hamstring tightness. He is batting .391.
High-A Aberdeen beat Hudson Valley 5-4 and is now 4-5. Adam Retzbach hit a two-run homer and a Luis Valdez sac fly in the ninth snapped a 4-4 tie.
Delmarva lost 5-4 to Kannapolis as Baltimore native Maxwell Costes hit his first homer. He is from Gilman School in Baltimore and played four years for the University of Maryland, hitting 40 homers. He was signed by the Birds as an undrafted free agent after the 2022 draft. Creed Willems hit his fourth homer for Delmarva and is now batting .429 with an OPS of 1.493, going 12-for-28 in seven games.
O's take series at Chicago: Yes the Orioles pitching has not lived up to expectations so far overall, but after Sunday's 8-4 win at Chicago, the Orioles headed back East at 9-7 and on a 91-win pace for the season.
Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez settled in big time after allowing two homers and four runs in the last of the first. He did not get a decision but threw five innings on 93 pitches. Through three games he has an 11.93 K rate and Sunday produced a 47 percent whiff rate on his changeup.
Cedric Mullins knocked in four to lead what has become a relentless Baltimore offense. One that produced 20 runs in the series, 28 the last four games and 49 runs the past seven games, during which the O's are 5-2.
The team batting line through 16 games is .260/.357/.450/.807 and the Orioles have scored six runs or more nine times, including in each of the last four games. They average 5.88 runs per game which ranks second in the majors behind Tampa Bay.
They take today off before beginning a two-game series Tuesday night at Nats Park versus Washington.
Roster move update: The Orioles announced a roster move today, reinstating lefty reliever Keegan Akin from the paternity list. They optioned right-hander Spenser Watkins to Triple-A Norfolk after Sunday's game.
Watkins was recalled on Friday before the series-opener in Chicago, but did not pitch in any of the three weekend games. At Norfolk he had gone 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA in his first two starts this season. He last pitched April 8, allowing one unearned run over five innings versus Gwinnett.
Akin is 0-1 with an ERA of 8.31 in six Orioles games over 4 1/3 innings to start this year. He has thrown four scoreless outings, but allowed two runs each in two other games.