Kjerstad flexing power stroke in AFL

October 12th, 2022

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When the Orioles made waves the day of the 2020 Draft and selected University of Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad with the second overall pick, general manager and executive vice president Mike Elias described his thinking behind the choice succinctly:

“His power is truly foul pole to foul pole -- all fields, all types of pitches. He’s a monster.”

It’s taken more than two years and ample time wondering just when that power would emerge, but Kjerstad, now healthy, has arrived in the Arizona Fall League with the Scottsdale Scorpions and brought his extra-base pop with him.

About that foul pole to foul pole power. In the bottom of the first, Kjerstad walloped a double to the left-center field gap that made the opposing pitcher bend at the waist in dismay; in the fifth, the Orioles’ No. 9 prospect crushed a two-run homer to right-center. On both occasions, the sound of ball meeting bat reverberated throughout Scottsdale Stadium. The Scorpions ultimately fell to the Javelinas, 10-6.

“Just trying to hit it where it’s pitched,” Kjerstad said of his approach. “If it’s away, I try to go away with it; when it’s in, I try to get a good swing off and put it to right field.”

Myocarditis, in the wake of the pandemic, put an immediate hold on Kjerstad’s pro career. After ample precautions were taken to make sure the outfielder would be healthy for the long run, he entered spring camp in 2022 looking to begin his trek toward Baltimore. But a high grade left hamstring strain struck in March and prolonged his time not spent in the batter’s box.

Kjerstad’s eventual debut came with Single-A Delmarva in June. He mashed his way through the level, slashing a gaudy .463/.551/.650 in 22 games. The 23-year-old ran into some inconsistencies with High-A Aberdeen upon a July promotion, but he still managed to collect a hit in 29 of 43 contests. Maybe most importantly, the IronBirds came within one game of winning the South Atlantic League crown, a feat not lost on Kjerstad.

“Win or go home, those games are always fun,” he said. “It brings the best out of everyone. … A little bit more competitive than the regular season, so it was a good time.”

Through seven AFL contests, Kjerstad has looked every bit the middle-of-the-order bat that Elias and the Orioles envisioned when his name was announced. He has hit .344 with a 1.007 OPS and is one of 12 players tied for tops in the fall circuit with two homers. With a wave of young talent docking on the Charm City shores this past season, there’s reason for optimism that Kjerstad isn’t far behind; a day-by-day approach to his return has earned him that distinction.

Sometimes the most important observers aren’t always at the yard. Upon returning to the dugout in the fifth, Kjerstad asked for his roundtripper to be sent out over social media so that his mother could see his swing in action.

“They’ve been [with] me through the good and the bad and they love watching me play,” Kjerstad said of his family. “I know they have a lot of fun watching, so it’s fun to see them enjoying it too.”

Peoria utilized a balanced offensive attack Tuesday, cashing in at a .375 clip (6-for-16) with runners in scoring position. Top-ranked Padres prospect Jackson Merrill raised his AFL average to .393 with another multihit showing, while Yasel Antuna (WSH No. 19) and Drew Millas (WSH No. 30) both rapped out two-hit nights as well.