'OK, I'm back': Kjerstad blasts first pro homer

June 25th, 2022

It was the home run  and the Orioles waited two years for. 

Kjerstad showed off the power stroke that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 Draft on Friday, cranking his first career home run in his 10th game at Single-A Delmarva. The Orioles’ No. 9 prospect also walked and reached three times in the Shorebirds’ 5-4 loss to Lynchburg, extending his seven-game hit streak in the process. 

It was the latest encouraging effort from Kjerstad, who didn’t make his professional debut until earlier this month but has done nothing but rake since finally stepping on the field. Kjerstad is hitting .405 with eight RBIs and five walks in his first 42 plate appearances at Delmarva after his big night Friday. He was sidelined for alternate site training during his draft summer and all of 2021 recovering from myocarditis, a viral heart condition. 

"I never thought my first professional homer would be in 2022, but everybody has a little different journey,” Kjerstad said. “It’s unreal. Every every homer you hit is the best feeling you get playing the game, without a doubt. But without having had that feeling for a long time, and everything I've been through, it was electric. It got my blood pumping.”

Kjerstad took Lynchburg closer Samuel Vasquez deep to left-center field, a ninth-inning solo shot, for his first homer, showcasing the all-fields pop that made him one of college baseball’s most feared sluggers from 2018-2020. 

“It was the kind of a moment where I can be like, ‘Okay, I'm back,’” Kjerstad said. “'I can still play how I always used to, and let's roll from here.’”

Kjerstad rocketed up Draft boards by accumulating 37 homers over parts of three seasons at the University of Arkansas, emerging as the Southeastern Conference’s top slugger before the pandemic cut his junior season short in March 2020. The Orioles took notice, but surprised many when they selected Kjerstad second overall in that year’s Draft, signing him for more than $2.5 million below-pick value and using those savings to sign No. 7 prospect Coby Mayo and No. 27 righty Carter Baumler in later rounds.

Then Kjerstad kind of disappeared.

That summer, he was diagnosed with myocarditis, which kept him removed from baseball activity for more than a full year, until September 2021. A hamstring injury this spring further delayed his 2022 debut, keeping Kjerstad sidelined until finally arriving at Delmarva on June 10, more than two years removed from playing in a competitive game.

“Just getting back under the lights and getting in a game setting, it just came back,” Kjerstad said. “That first at-bat I got back, once I stepped in the box I felt at home again. I thought a lot about how it was going to be or how long it was going to take me to get my timing back or be able to do these things. Once I stepped in that box that first time, it all got left behind me. It was just back to playing ball like I used to.”

Now he’s out to prove he’s still a top prospect.

“Everybody was waiting, some of the guys were even joking with me about how long it was going to take, so they’re pumped and it was fun for everyone,” Kjerstad said. “I feel like (the power) has been there, it’s just about getting grooving in a game.”

“My power always comes with the season getting longer, the more the more at-bats I get, the more comfortable. I start trying less hard … and stop trying to force things as the season gets longer. My dad reminded me after the first couple games. He said, 'Just keep doing your thing. It’s working. Your power always comes as the season gets longer.' And then it kinda starts to pour on after you break the ice and get a little more comfortable."

It hasn’t taken Kjerstad long at all to look comfortable. He’s hit safely in eight of 10 games and doubled thrice to go along with Friday’s homer.

For Kjerstad at least, it was worth the wait.

"It's tough to simulate a game, but all the live at-bats I was getting on the side or the couple of extended games I got to play finishing my rehab, I tried to treat them like a real game, kind of trick myself a little," Kjerstad said. "But it's so different once the lights are on and there are fans in the seats and it actually matters. You're always going to handle that a little bit different. But I enjoy that. That's the fun part of the game. That's what you work hard for. That's what I prepare myself for, and it's really exciting to be able to do this again.”