After going – and this is accurate – a full 27 months between his last college game at the University of Arkansas in March 2020 and his first pro game earlier this season for low Single-A Delmarva, outfielder Heston Kjerstad continues to make up for lost time.
And he lost a lot of time.
The bout with myocarditis that is now in his rear-view mirror and the hamstring injured that sidelined him early this year. His long-awaited pro debut came on June 10 this summer for Delmarva. On July 13 he moved to high Single-A Aberdeen and ended the minor league year in the playoffs with the IronBirds. And now he’s doing well in the Arizona Fall League with the Scottsdale Scorpions.
In a late-season interview at Aberdeen's Ripken Stadium, Kjerstad said just being back on the field, playing in games and being healthy again, made this a special year for him.
“It’s been a great season,” he said before an IronBirds playoff game. “After going through my struggles, it’s even more fun (just playing) than I remember it being. And just being able to be out here everyday with the guys, working and getting better. Now let’s go home with some wins.”
Aberdeen came up a win short of a title but the season was a win for a player who missed so much time and now wants to show again that he can play his way again into top 100 prospect status.
“Without a doubt. Being away from the game for that long, everything is improved. Got a bunch of at-bats, played a handful of games and tried to work on every part of my game,” said Kjerstad, ranked as the club's No. 8 prospect by Baseball America and No. 9 via MLBPipeline.com.
Over 65 games between Delmarva and Aberdeen, Kjerstad, 23, batted .309/.394/.457/.851. He completely raked for the Shorebirds, batting .463 with an OPS of 1.201 while batting .233/.674 at Aberdeen.
“It’s just part of the season. Got it rolling there at the end pretty good,” he said. “Was feeling good. You’re always trying to refine your approach or maybe make a few adjustments to your swing. Everything has been synching up. Been feeling good, hitting the ball well.”
And he was hitting better at season’s end with Aberdeen, going 7-for-16 in his last four regular-season games. In six playoff games he hit .261 (6-for-23) with two doubles, a triple, six RBIs and four runs. In his first six AFL games he was batting .333 (9-for-27) with two doubles, a homer, five RBIs and an OPS of .898.
He just didn’t quite match his torrid run in going 37-for-80 with Delmarva. That was a pretty high bar.
“It’s part of the game," he said. "It all averages out at the end of year. You’ll have your good streaks and bad ones. Try to learn from both of them. Keep the tougher streaks as short as you can and keep the others rolling as long as you can.
“You honestly learn more (with some struggles) than when you are doing good. Because you are probably more open. When you are going good some things are just working and maybe something is working that is not the best for your swing, but it’s rewarding you. Sometimes when going through a tough stretch you have to go back to basics, go back to square one. That is normally when you are at your best.”
Kjerstad said he does sometimes reflect on the 27 months between games for him at Arkansas and Delmarva. Over two years without his name appearing in a boxscore.
“Oh yeah, for sure. That’s a part of something I think about a decent amount of time. Less now that I am back playing. It honestly feels like it wasn’t that long of a gap now, but it was definitely a slow time in my life. We all go through struggles as players and it’s going to be a part of my journey at the end. It’s probably going to help me reach the goals and get me where I want to go.”
And now the AFL provides a chance to get more work, more reps.
“I’m pumped for it," he said before heading west. "Going to be a good experience for me out there. There will be great players there and a lot of competition. For me mostly, I’m just excited to keep playing baseball. Get more at-bats and play more games."
He realizes he may be at a different point in his career now without having to deal with myocarditis.
“At the end of the day I just have to keep getting my at-bats, keep getting better. There is a plan for me and that part of the plan I can’t really control it. It’s kind of in the hands of the organization and whatever plan they have for me that’s up to them and the way they see me. My job is to show up and show them what I can bring to the table. And also show them I keep getting better in the ways they want me to and hopefully one day end up where I want to end up," said Kjerstad, keeping a positive outlook and attitude after all he has been through.
And as of late last night, Kjerstad was 2-for-3 in his latest game with Scottsdale wih a double, two-run homer and two RBIs.