Jordan Westburg usually wouldn’t feel a smile creasing his face after his manager removed him for a pinch-hitter. His competitive side makes it hard to accept sitting, and definitely not with a grin, whether at the beginning or in the later innings. He wants the bat in his hands. He wants a challenge, and the chance to impact a game.
There are exceptions, though, like Thursday night at Camden Yards.
Westburg was supposed to lead off the bottom of the eighth against Rays reliever Robert Stephenson, but Brandon Hyde sent up Heston Kjerstad for his major league debut. The crowd roared when he stepped out of the dugout.
There was a more reserved but approving reaction inside of it.
Westburg knew the struggles that Kjerstad endured to reach this moment. The diagnosis of myocarditis, and later a strained hamstring. More than one setback. Questions about his professional future. Worries about his long-term health.
“The whole thing was awesome,” Kjerstad said, not letting a five-pitch strikeout ruin it. “Being able to go out there and just get that first AB in, I definitely had a lot of emotions going on, a little bit of a surreal moment. Great crowd, the atmosphere, and I’m just thankful to be able to be a part of a club like this and get a chance to go out there and help the team.
“The crowd getting loud and everything like that, it’s awesome. Adrenaline starts pumping. That’s something you dream of and something where you’re glad to be in the moment, and enjoyed it a lot and looking forward to a lot of that in the future.”
Westburg understood exactly what it meant to his friend.
“I thought about that when he pinch-hit for me,” Westburg said. “I was sitting on the bench, and just seeing him in the box put a smile on my face because not a lot of people know the full story and what he’s gone through. And for him to just make it to here and be in the lineup today is special. Not a lot of people have that resolve in this world to keep fighting and fighting and fighting, believing in yourself and working your way back. For him to do that is pretty cool.”
Kjerstad made his first start last night, serving as designated hitter. He took a called third strike in the third inning and led off the sixth with his first major league hit – a home run that broke up Zach Eflin’s bid for a no-hitter. The 11th player in Orioles history to accomplish the feat.
The last 48 hours were like a dream.
“You always think stuff up like this in your head,” Kjerstad said. “It’s definitely way better than you could even imagine it.”
Kjerstad smiled and thanked a team employee who handed him the home run ball at his locker. The club arranged a swap that included a signed bat “and a couple other things.”
The family waited for him down a hallway. The father introduced Kjerstad to his young son, claiming that the boy caught it. Kjerstand leaned down and asked for his name, making sure to get it right. Making the moment more personal.
Kjerstad thanked everyone for returning it.
“Definitely worth it to get the ball back,” he said. “I appreciate the fan giving that back to me and everything.”
The Rays are starting another right-hander tonight and Kjerstad could stay in the lineup. But he’s fine with bench life, as long as he’s here.
“Normally you’re used to showing up and playing in the first inning, but they told me pregame (Thursday) that, ‘If the right guy comes into the game, there could be a matchup where you go in and pinch-hit, and late in the game be ready,’’ Kjerstad said. “I was hitting in the cage, watching who was in the bullpen with some other coaches, and then they told me, ‘If this guy comes in, be ready to lead off the inning.’ It was a fun experience.”
His turn to smile.
“It’s been awesome,” he said. “To be in this clubhouse with all these guys, and they’ve really taken me under their wing. Just treating me well and talking to me here and there. It’s been a great experience”
Prospects pay it forward. What they’re told is passed along to the next guy.
“I haven’t gotten to talk to him a ton because he just got called up, but if there was one piece of advice I would give him, it’s just lean on the guys in this clubhouse,” Westburg said.
“I know when I came up here everybody was really open to helping me out, and if I had a question, they were really easy-going in answering them. When I got called up I can remember feeling like, I don’t want to bother anybody, but I think they made it very clear that it wasn’t going to be a bother if I had questions or if I needed help with something.
“For him, just be comfortable. Don’t think about what asking somebody a question might do. Everybody’s going to be open here. We’re all in the same situation, we’re all trying to win baseball games, we’re all trying to get to the World Series and win championships. Everybody’s going to need to help us along the way, including him, and he’s got to feel comfortable. And to do that you’ve got to open up to everybody in this clubhouse.”