HOUSTON — The first thing out of Dave Van Horn’s mouth when describing Heston Kjerstad’s baseball ability is his power.
On the field ahead of Monday’s series opener at Minute Maid Park, the Arkansas skipper and his entire coaching staff gathered to greet their recent pupil on the biggest stage. There are questions surrounding Kjerstad, principally whether his defensive prowess will translate to this level, but Van Horn knows one thing for an absolute truth, regardless of what level Kjerstad finds himself.
Heston can hit.
He hit at Arkansas, before a serious heart condition stopped Kjerstad from playing his first season in the minor leagues after the Orioles drafted him with the second overall pick in 2020. He recovered, gained his strength back and then hit his way through the minors. And now in his first week with Baltimore, Kjerstad is showing his greatest skill each time he heads to the plate.
Kjerstad joined a homer barrage in the Orioles’ 9-5 win against the Houston Astros on Tuesday, and he didn’t even get all of the ball. It was an inside-out swing, late on a fastball from right-hander José Urquidy. He still muscled it just over the left field wall into the Crawford Boxes for his second home run in just his fifth game for the Orioles.
“Ball comes off his bat hot,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Big, strong kid with a ton of power. It’s gonna be fun to watch him down the stretch.”
In Monday’s series-opening win, Kjerstad notched two singles. In Tuesday’s follow-up, his opposite-field homer was one of four long balls Baltimore used to secure a series victory ahead of Wednesday’s afternoon matinee.
Kjerstad’s college coaches flew back to Fayetteville, Arkansas, after Monday’s game, so they didn’t see his two loud outs before the solo shot Tuesday. But Kjerstad hears from his former hitting coach Nate Thompson often, and throughout his journey they’ve been a guiding influence.
“They’re pumped. They’re excited,” Kjerstad said. “They always keep up with me, text me here and there. They’re a great group of guys, so it’s always good to have their support.”
With the victory, the Orioles clinched either the top overall seed in the American League or the first wild-card spot. They had already earned a place in the postseason Sunday, but now they’re guaranteed a better record than the Astros — meaning that if Baltimore wins the American League East, it will be the top team in the American League at large.
With the Tampa Bay Rays’ win Tuesday, the Orioles’ magic number dropped to eight. Any combination of Orioles wins and Rays losses that total eight will lock up Baltimore’s first divisional crown since 2014.
“It could’ve been easy to show up here after celebrating and having fun and not play our best baseball, and we’ve kind of played just like we did the last two games against the Rays,” right-hander Kyle Gibson said.
The Orioles needed the run support to push them through a short start from Gibson that required two scoreless innings from right-hander Jack Flaherty to cover for a taxed bullpen. Still, Baltimore relied on five relievers, including Yennier Cano for two outs in the ninth before Cionel Pérez earned the save. In doing so, Cano and Pérez became the first Orioles pitchers to pitch three days in a row this year, which Hyde said was out of necessity rather than desire.
Austin Hays, who entered hitting .212 in his last 10 games, blasted two homers to first take the lead and then extend it. Ryan O’Hearn continued his sublime performances at the plate, following a five-hit day with two more hits Tuesday, beginning in the first inning with a two-run homer.
And then Kjerstad joined the parade with his opposite-field shot — a homer at Minute Maid Park and no other stadium, according to Statcast’s measurements. Even if it just squeaked over the fence, though, it was another hard-hit ball from a player who entered with 80% of his contact leaving his bat at 95 mph or faster through his first four games.
“Definitely decent start,” Kjerstad said. “But there’s still a lot of things I’d like to tighten up or work on, improve, that would help me help the team down the stretch here. But for now, it’s been a solid transition. Getting my feet wet, but also keeping my head down and working on things that need to be worked on.”
The Orioles used six relievers in each of their last two games, which prompted the decision to make Flaherty available out of the bullpen for the immediate future. It also heightened the importance of a lengthy outing from Gibson, an innings eater who has pitched more than anyone else on the staff.
But Gibson failed to complete five innings for just the fifth time this season. Gibson only allowed three runs against the Astros — a two-run homer from Kyle Tucker in the first and Alex Bregman’s solo shot in the third — yet Hyde pulled him early. He’d thrown 83 pitches, but with two runners on, Hyde turned to left-hander DL Hall to escape the jam.
It worked. Baltimore stranded both runners and then ballooned its lead in the top half of the sixth, providing breathing room for a bullpen without several of its top arms, such as left-hander Danny Coulombe.
“Our offense has really been picking us up a lot,” Gibson said.
That bullpen required the added-on runs, with right-hander Jorge López allowing a two-run blast to Yainer Diaz in the sixth. López, claimed off waivers from the Miami Marlins early this month, hasn’t regained the form he displayed while Baltimore’s All-Star closer in 2022. In his last four appearances, López has allowed six runs on four homers.
That blip from López narrowed the score only momentarily. Hays went long, and then Kjerstad did what his college coaches have long known was possible at this level.
He hit. And he hit for power.
“I don’t even know if I’ve seen him not hit a ball hard yet,” Hays said. “Every ball he’s put in play has just been crushed.”