ABERDEEN, Md. – In the minor leagues it’s like the equivalent of playing a Game 7 of the World Series. For the O’s high Single-A Aberdeen IronBirds affiliate tonight, it’s the final game of a series and the season.
Aberdeen hosts Bowling Green, a Tampa Bay Rays farm club, in Game 3 of the best-of-three South Atlantic League championship series at 7:05 p.m. Bowling Green won 5-3 Sunday and Aberdeen won at Ripken Stadium 13-6 last night. Tonight’s winner will be the 2022 SAL champions.
The last two O’s farm teams to win championships were the Single-A Frederick Keys in 2011 with Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop in the Carolina League and the Double-A Bowie Baysox in 2015. With a team that included Trey Mancini and Mike Yastrzemski, the Baysox won the Eastern League title.
Aberdeen, an O’s affiliate since 2002, had never even won a single playoff series until this year.
Ahead of tonight’s winner-take-all game, some notes and quotes from Aberdeen.
Kjerstad readies for AFL: What a journey it has been for Orioles outfield prospect Heston Kjerstad. He played a game for the University of Arkansas in March of 2020 and three months later was taken by the Orioles with the No. 2 pick in that draft.
He would not play his first pro baseball game until June 10 this year for low Single-A Delmarva. That was two years to the day since he had been drafted and about 27 months since he last played a game in college.
A bout with myocarditis sidelined him for the entire 2021 season. And just when he was about to break north with a club for opening day this year, he suffered a hamstring injury.
He said O’s players in rehab, in encouraging each other over weeks and months they would have to spend in Florida in rehab mode, would say it’s just “a minor setback for a major comeback.”
It was this time last year that Kjerstad was just starting to take live batting practice and getting back up to full speed.
"Around this time I was finally hitting live again,” he recalled during an interview yesterday at Ripken Stadium. “A full year back at it. I would say I’m where I want to be. Honestly it was definitely a road to get here, but learned a lot about myself as player. And what it takes. You don’t lose it, you just have to find it again. That’s the game of baseball.
“It’s been a great season. After going through my struggles, it’s even more fun 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.”
Kjerstad completely raked with Delmarva but there have been some expected ups-and-downs with Aberdeen. Through it all just being out there is special for him and he feels he is ending this season a better player.
“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,” he said.
Kjerstad hit .463 with a 1.201 OPS in 22 games with Delmarva and has hit .233/.674 with Aberdeen in 43 games. But he finished the year going 7-for-16. He smoked a two-run triple yesterday against Bowling Green.
With only those 65 games under his belt and five more in the Aberdeen playoffs, the 23-year-old lefty hitter will get more work in during the Arizona Fall League that begins play Oct. 3.
“I’m pumped for it,” he said of the AFL. “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. Also I like traveling so it will be cool to play at the Arizona spring training complexes and get a feel for that. Be a lot of fun,” he said.
If he wants to know about the AFL he just has to ask his brother, Dex. He played in the 2016 AFL.
Missing a key player: Aberdeen is playing the championship series without first baseman TT Bowens, who suffered an oblique injury before Game 1. In 106 games this season, he batted .248/.376/.392/.768 with 20 doubles, five triples, seven homers and 45 RBIs.
“He was our MVP all season,” said Aberdeen manager Roberto Mercado. “Been here all year and got some big hits. He had big hits in the last two (playoff) games against Brooklyn. That is a big loss for us.”
Draft picks lend a hand: Late in the regular season the IronBirds added the Orioles second, third and fourth picks in the 2022 MLB Draft. They added outfielder Dylan Beavers, the No. 33 overall draft pick, infielder Max Wagner, taken No. 42 and outfielder Jud Fabian, taken No. 67.
While that trio drove in seven runs in last night’s win, they also batted a combined .196 (11-for-56) in the final regular season games for Aberdeen.
“It’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to make mistakes,” said Mercado. “That’s where you make adjustments, right? From mistakes. These are great learning opportunities for them and teachable moments. Those guys have come up and their at the top of our order right now. It’s exciting, having guys move up. You see Connor Norby now in Triple-A, which is awesome. He started with us this year.”
Tonight’s starter: Right-hander Peter Van Loon, 23, will be on the mound for Aberdeen tonight. He is 11-4 with a 3.25 ERA this season over 24 games with a 1.26 WHIP. He has fanned 97 in 88 2/3 innings. The O’s 16th-round pick in the 2021 draft out of UC-Irvine, he is ending the year on a roll. His ERA, including one playoff start, is 2.33 his last six games.