Heston Kjerstad was making his second visit to Maryland after flying in from the spring training complex in Sarasota to begin working out with the Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds. Taking his rounds of batting practice and waiting for the Orioles to activate him. In an unfamiliar setting that just seemed right to him.
He noticed it again as he walked to home plate Friday night in his first professional game.
Right where he belonged. Nothing else about it mattered.
“Honestly, just felt alive again being in the box. Just playing some baseball,” he said the following day after going 1-for-4 with an RBI.
“It kind of all comes back to you. You get locked in again for hitting. I felt at home again being able to dig in the box and have my approach, and just take some at-bats.”
The hamstring strain was healed. The myocarditis cleared a while ago. He advanced to playing at extended spring training and in simulated games, the Orioles plotting careful steps to protect the leg.
Likely a beautiful coincidence based on the calendar and his recovery, Kjerstad was in uniform exactly two years after the Orioles made him the second overall selection in the 2020 amateur draft.
“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of anticipation for the moment,” he said. “I had a lot of time to think about it over the past little while, but mostly just excitement and enjoyment and happiness of being back on the field.”
A ground ball in the first inning produced a run, and Kjerstad singled in his third at-bat.
“It was good just to be able to put some runs on the board for the team, and then also break the ice and get that first knock in the first game,” he said. “Just keep it rolling from there.”
Kjerstad directed a soft liner into left field for his first professional hit. The home runs are going to come. He slugged 31 in his first two years at the University of Arkansas and had six in 16 games during his truncated junior season. But he also posted a .343 average and 421 on-base percentage in 691 college plate appearances.
He can handle a bat.
“It was a heater a little bit middle-in,” he said. “I was a little late and just kind of finessed it the other way. That’s kind of like my bread and butter a little bit, just a little line drive to left field and jog down to first. It felt good.”
The strongest emotions came to him during the hours spent with family.
Kjerstad’s parents flew into Baltimore from Texas, rented a car and drove to Salisbury to watch him play. To celebrate the achievement, the reward for never allowing his poor health to break him.
“My parents were able to come to the games, so it’s good to finally be able to walk out of the stadium and go eat some dinner with my parents after the game. They were as excited and ready for that to happen as me,” he said.
“It was good. It was a long time coming. Some things happened you don’t really plan for when you think about your career, but just had to persevere through it. And, shoot, my parents helped me through it. They were awesome, supportive. They helped me stay positive and kept me motivated and were just there for me when I needed it. And they’re here for me once things finally turned around and are going good again.
“There also are a couple players here that I rehabbed with over the past while. We’ve been through some injuries together and been able to work through them together, so they were pumped for me, too, and I was pumped for them when they were back on the field, too.”
A few weeks passed before Kjerstad truly began to feel like the player whom executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias on draft night called “the best left-handed hitter in the country this year.”
Kjerstad said he just needed to get consistent at-bats, which enabled him to relax at the plate.
“Once I hit my stride and I stopped trying to force things or just trying to be too aggressive, because you get out there and it’s like, you want to get hits, you want to make contact with the ball, you want to remember what it feels like to crush a pitch in a game and everything like that,” he said. “But after that, you kind of step in the box and are like, ‘OK, I felt what it feels like again,’ and you just let the game come to you instead of trying to force it.”
The Orioles set up a progression for Kjerstad that removes him early from games when he’s in the field. At least for a few weeks. He started in right field last night after waiting out a long rain delay, with the game shortened to seven innings, and went 2-for-3 with a double, walk and run scored.
“As long as I can progress how they want me to and feel good, then hopefully just a couple weeks,” he said. “It’s just day-to-day of, OK, everything feels great, keep going, play the next game. And they’re going to want me to get a mandatory couple extra off days coming off my hamstring injury to be cautious and make sure everything’s good to go.
“Hopefully, it won’t be too long and I’ll be able to be in the lineup every day and play in the outfield every day, too.”