Kjerstad on Cowser: "It’s good to see him come out of the gate hot"

SARASOTA, Fla. – No one in the Orioles organization is enjoying Colton Cowser’s hot start in exhibition games more than teammate and friend Heston Kjerstad, who doesn’t ponder how it might impact his own chances of making the Opening Day roster.

Kjerstad isn’t wired that way. He wants everyone to be electric, to put up good numbers.

And he remains confident that he’ll do it, too.

Kjerstad received three at-bats yesterday in the Orioles’ 9-8 walk-off win over the Pirates in Sarasota. He flied to left field against Paul Skenes to end the first inning but lined a single into left-center against left-hander Bailey Falter in the third. He was 1-for-12 with four strikeouts before Falter … well, faltered.

The spring tally is 2-for-14 after Kjerstad bounced to the mound in the fifth inning.

“There’s still some things you’re always ironing out,” he said earlier in the day. “Throughout the season or in the beginning, you’re always feeling something out, you’re always trying to find a new level or execute something that you’re not. So, it’s forever happening throughout the season.”

Cowser didn’t play after hitting his second home run the previous day in Fort Myers, a three-run shot that followed his single an inning earlier. He’s 3-for-6 with five RBIs, three walks, two strikeouts, a stolen base and two runs scored.

Production that’s typical for Cowser in the minors.

“One hundred percent,” Kjerstad said. “He swings it well and when he’s rolling, he’s really doing some damage. It’s good to see him come out of the gate hot. That’s just the type of hitter he is. Last year in Norfolk, got to hit behind him a lot, so it was always fun. Him and I, hitting in front of or behind each other is a good time.”

“Colton is way more aggressive at the plate,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “Taking really good swings. He’s got a lot of ability. He’s got a lot of tools. He’s got some power, he can run. I like the way he’s playing center field, also.”

Roster predictions typically are fluid, and Kjerstad was a logical assumption for Opening Day based on the double and two home runs in 13 games after his September promotion, his inclusion on the Division Series roster and the possibility of giving the second-overall draft pick in 2020 lots of at-bats as the designated hitter.

Cowser, the fifth-overall selection in 2021, didn’t let a long offseason slow his roll after he belted a 455-foot grand slam in the Triple-A championship game to give Norfolk a 7-6 win over Oklahoma City and seal his selection as Most Valuable Player. He hit .115 with a .433 OPS in 26 games with the Orioles and spent only two days on their expanded September roster, but batted .300/.417/.520 with 18 doubles, 17 home runs, 62 RBIs and 64 walks in 399 plate appearances with the Tides.

This isn’t a four-A player. He just has his adjustment period after jumping a level, and the broadest one in the sport plants feet in the majors.

The Orioles could decide to carry only four natural outfielders and experiment with Jorge Mateo as a backup in center and left. They could make a hard decision in the infield and keep five outfielders, but holding onto Cowser and Kjerstad wouldn’t be a lock.

Both are left-handed hitters with pop. Cowser is more advanced defensively, able to play all three spots and eliminating backup concerns in center and left. But Ryan McKenna is a speedster who’s a plus defender at each spot, bats from the right side and is out of options.

“I don’t really think about those things,” Kjerstad said. “I just show up, take care of my business every day, keep working to get better. At the end of the day, I don’t have any control of that. They decide what’s best for the team and no matter what happens, you’ve just got to keep playing and improving.

“Whenever my time is or whatever it is, I’ve got to be ready to help the team.”

Again, unfazed.

First base coach Anthony Sanders, who also serves as outfield instructor, expressed his trust at the Birdland Caravan in Kjerstad’s defensive ability.

“I’ve seen nothing but improvement,” Sanders said. “I went down to spring training early with him last year and was really impressed, the way he moves around. You talk to other people, you probably hear more negative than positives about it, and then when I got to see a small sample size when he came up in September last year, I was super impressed.

“There were conversations about him playing in some of those games late, and they came to me and I said, ‘I have no issues with him playing.’ He works just as hard as anybody going back on balls, and to me it’s just an opportunity that’s waiting, and we’ll see what he can and can’t do. But I have total confidence in him out there.”

Kjerstad started in right field yesterday rather than serve as DH. The Orioles are evaluating his progress, making his glovework – jumps, routes, et cetera - a big focal point of his camp.

“The coaching staff and everybody, they’ve told me, ‘We know you can swing it and we want to see a jump in your defense,’” he said. “Obviously still focused on hitting, but that’s a major part of the game is playing solid defense.”

The challenge can overwhelm Gold Glovers, who get spun and lose fly balls in the high sky and in gusts of wind. Enrique Bradfield Jr., an 80-grade defender, made a stumbling catch in left at LECOM Park in Bradenton, only his advanced skills allowing him to avoid further embarrassment.

“Honestly, it’s probably a really good place to practice on it because the high skies, and the wind’s always changing,” Kjerstad said, offering another dose of positivity.

“If you can be a good outfielder in these conditions, once you go to a place where the wind’s not blowing as much and you’ve got a little cloud coverage or it’s nighttime, it’s going to be a lot easier, seem a lot easier, for sure.”

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