For Orioles outfield prospect Heston Kjerstad, late last year was a bit of a turning point and it was a time when he started to truly feel comfortable again in a batter’s box.
We have to remember that due to his bout with myocarditis and a spring hamstring issue this time last year, he went 27 months between games. That is crazy. But Kjerstad played March 11, 2020 for the University of Arkansas and not after that due to the pandemic that season. He then missed the 2021 season and the hammie delayed his start to last year. He finally debuted in a pro game on June 10, 2022 for low Single-A Delmarva and proceeded to go 37-for-80 over 22 games. By July 13 he was with High-A Aberdeen. But his OPS there was just .674 in 43 games.
But with the IronBirds, his swing was looking good and his bat was heating up again late in the year. He went 7-for-16 in his last four regular-season games. Then in six Aberdeen playoff games he hit .261 (6-for-23) with two doubles, a triple, six RBIs and four runs. He was driving the ball and it carried big-time into his play in the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .357/.385/.622/1.007 and hit five homers in 22 games. He was named the AFL’s MVP.
He has picked up where he left off there in this spring camp in Sarasota. Not a stretch to say he’s made as strong an impression as any player there.
“Just, you know, been able to cover the whole plate, inside and outside, and been driving the ball well to both sides of the field so far,” he said this week at Ed Smith Stadium. “Playing well always helps. Showing people that haven’t seen you play much what you have and what type of player you are. It helps them make decisions down the road.”
And it finally truly clicked again in those final days of the 2022 season at Ripken Stadium for the player the O’s selected No. 2 overall in the 2020 draft.
“For sure. Finally had a good amount of ABs under my belt and really felt comfortable in the box,” said Kjerstad.
There will come a time when he will no longer have to talk about missing so much time, but that is part of his story for now. And it gave him a better appreciation for the sport he already had a love affair with.
“Oh, 100 percent. Being able to be healthy," he said. "Last year at this time I had my hamstring strain. Just thankful to be out here, be healthy and play every day. Just enjoy being around the guys and being part of this team.”
The Orioles will almost certainly start Kjerstad at Double-A Bowie this season. He could really rake in that hitter’s park there and maybe push for Triple-A time at some point. And who knows? The majors may not be out of his reach this year.
“I think it’s been done before, so I wouldn’t put anything past it," Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said of the potential for such a scenario. "That’s very, very challenging to do. But you never know.”
Said Kjerstad: “I think that’s a goal for everybody in the minors: to make the big leagues. That is one of mine. I’ve got to perform well and also stay healthy. Still a long season ahead. Hopefully, that will be in the cards, but now I just need to show up every day and become a better player for when I do get my opportunity.”
He has a 1.357 OPS in 16 spring games. He's batting .444 (12-for-27) and is tied with Austin Hays for the team homer lead with three. And No. 3 was a total blast, off a building beyond the right-field fence Monday in North Port against Atlanta.
“It was pull side too,” he said. “Fastball a little bit in, got the barrel to it.”
He makes it sound easy, but we know it’s not. We also have a sense of how much it must mean to a player to play like this after being out of the game on rehab for so long.
O's spring homer leaders
3 - Austin Hays, Heston Kjerstad
O's spring RBI leaders
9 - Josh Lester
8 - Ryan Mountcastle
7 - Franchy Cordero, Austin Hays
O's spring OPS leaders (min. 15 ABs)
1.391 - Franchy Cordero
1.353 - Heston Kjerstad
1.297 - Austin Hays
Click here for another look at Kjerstad's homer from Monday.
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