O's Kjerstad makes pro debut, collects 1st hit, after 2-year wait

June 11th, 2022

Orioles outfield prospect Heston Kjerstad's first professional at-bat was a constructive out, an RBI groundout to the right side that scored the game's first run for Single-A Delmarva on Friday night. It would have been wholly productive no matter how it resulted.

Exactly two years following being selected as the second overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, Kjerstad, ranked as the club's No. 9 prospect by MLB Pipeline, was activated off the injured list to make his professional debut. It’s been a long, arduous path to this point, following a case of myocarditis that sidelined Kjerstad in different formats through the 2021 season and a significant left hamstring strain he endured in March that delayed his readiness for '22.

For good measure, Kjerstad added his first professional hit in the sixth inning, an opposite-field single to left, getting two much-awaited firsts off his plate in a 7-1 loss for Delmarva.

"It means a lot. It's been a journey to get to this moment,” Kjerstad said pregame on Zoom from Salisbury, Md., home of the Shorebirds. “It's been a lot of patience. … Even when times are rough, there's always a light at the end of the tunnel."

The plan is to slow-play Kjerstad, now 23, into his first professional season. He's on a plan that’ll keep him from playing every inning or even every game as he opens his Orioles career, and he will likely be lifted in-game to manage his workload per the rehab protocols the O's have set out for him. For at least a couple weeks, he will be limited to fragmented games in the outfield, but he can play all nine innings as the designated hitter.

On Friday, he was slotted in at DH, batted third, and wore No. 9.

"That's what they had. The jersey fit good,” Kjersad said. “ … As long as there's a baseball field, a place to play, that's all I'm worried about at this point.”

For much of the past two years, it was hard to envision such an innocent desire.

Kjerstad’s last official game came in a University of Arkansas jersey in 2020. That summer, he caught COVID-19. That August, he was diagnosed with myocarditis -- a viral inflammation of the heart muscle -- in the fallout.

Kjerstad's 2020 season, which would have been spent at the alternate training site, was wiped away. After he spent some time in extended spring training in ’21, recurring heart issues eroded the chance for him to make it to an affiliate. Being able to resume baseball activities in August, a year after his myocarditis diagnosis, and instructional league this past October were the extent of his activities.

And then in March, back to full medical clearance, a significant left hamstring strain sustained during an intrasquad game then shut Kjerstad down for over two months.

“It was frustrating,” Kjerstad said. “It's not fun to go through injuries. You never plan for them in your journey, you never think about them. But you got to persevere through them, because it's part of the game. It's not the funnest part, but I think you learn some things being away from the game.”

Such as how to deal with the pressure, disappointment and winding path of seeing those drafted before and after you make it to a high-level affiliate, let alone the Majors.

“We all have different journeys and we're all working for the same goal,” Kjerstad said. “Our timelines will be a little different, for sure. I've just got to be patient and just keep my head down and stay on my timeline, and progress as fast as I can and just become the best player I can be.”

Delmarva could be a temporary home for Kjerstad. He’s one of the oldest -- if not the oldest -- players at that level, already one of the top sluggers at the college circuit upon his selection in the Draft. He’s going to rediscover himself. And he’s going to have to do so with patience. At least, that’s something he’s used to.

“It's going to be human nature,” Kjerstad said. “I'm going to want to hit the ball hard, I'm going to want to get hits, I'm going to want to hit home runs. But it's going to be just kind of sitting back, staying confident in my process and approach, and just enjoying the process and enjoying being back in the box.”

But now, with medical clearance on both his heart and hamstring, the organization will be able to witness the player they signed for $5.2 million almost exactly two years ago, one they hope is simply a latent talent in baseball's top-rated farm system.

“Over that time, honestly, what I learned most was how much I want to play the game of baseball. Being away from it, it's not where I want to be,” Kjerstad said. “I want to be at the field every day, I want to be playing. It's really put a perspective on how much I love the game and how I want to play it as long as I can.

“Now putting in the work or whatever I got to do [in order] to do that, it's fun, because that's that's all I want to do. I couldn't think of anything else through the time that was appealing or put a smile on my face or helped me pass the time. But now being back here at the baseball field and at the clubhouse around the guys, a lot of fun, and it's what I want to do.”