SARASOTA, Fla. — From home plate to the right-center field fence of a back field at the Ed Smith Stadium complex is 373 feet. Just beyond that fence is a batting cage building with a metal roof. The far side of that building is some 40 feet farther than the fencing.
And with a resounding bang, it’s upon that slanted metal roof a baseball landed Tuesday morning, a bang that caused the onlookers — co-hitting coach Ryan Fuller and teammates among them — to tilt their heads and look at the batter in the box.
There was Heston Kjerstad, bat in hand, a smile on his face.
In many ways, this spring has been Kjerstad’s formal introduction to the organization. He was selected second overall in the 2020 draft, yet he’s a relatively unknown commodity to most of the major league players and staff in Baltimore — or was, before the ball jumped off his bat throughout the spring. The Orioles reassigned him to minor league camp Wednesday, and he’ll likely start in Double-A or Triple-A, but he has re-established himself as a top prospect in an organization laden with them after his career was thrown off course by a severe diagnosis not long after being drafted.
The discovery of myocarditis, inflammation of a heart muscle, cost Kjerstad a chance to be here the past two seasons. He was away from baseball for over a year, came back and immediately dealt with a hamstring injury.
But on Tuesday, on that back field in Sarasota, each of Kjerstad’s six swings with the imaginary bases loaded could have signaled a different part of his story. If his heart condition was a major chapter, what he has done since recovering in the two years since is as large a segment — and, in the long run, will mean more to him.
The Orioles outfielder had stepped into the box with a clear directive from the coach throwing behind the L-screen netting. The bases were loaded with imaginary runners. Kjerstad had six swings to drive in as many of them as he could, and those six swings each turned into a marvel of their own.
He first lined two balls the opposite way into left field, including a would-be grand slam that battered a palm tree beyond the fence on the way down. He flew out to deep center, pulled one ball foul, then landed a rocket just inside the right-field line. And finally, there was the blast that might’ve left a baseball-sized indentation in the metal roof of the batting cage building.
This is who Kjerstad is — a born hitter, one who turns a spring training batting practice session on a back field in Sarasota into a must-watch event.
“His swing is just a work of art,” Orioles infield prospect Jordan Westburg said.
Kjerstad did the same in January when, back in Fayetteville, Arkansas, working out at his alma mater, he put on a show for the Razorbacks players gathered around the turtle cage at home plate. Dave Van Horn, his coach at Arkansas, remembers how Kjerstad peppered left field and center field with line drives before he crushed the storage shed beyond right field at Baum–Walker Stadium.
Nate Thompson, Kjerstad’s hitting coach at Arkansas, turned to his current crop of players as that batting practice session unfolded.
“This is what it looks like,” Thompson told them.
And last week during batting practice at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Florida, outfielder Kyle Stowers watched as Kjerstad blasted opposite-field homers over the mock-Green Monster in left field. Later, in the game, Kjerstad drilled a double off that hulking wall, part of a spring that includes four homers and a 1.219 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
“Everything from his BP to what he does in the game has been super impressive,” Stowers said.
Kjerstad prefers to look forward, shying away from much talk about his time away from the game. Those around him respect his desire to not dwell on a time filled with uncertainty, when Orioles general manager Mike Elias didn’t rule out in June 2021 the lingering condition costing Kjerstad his career.
But they also see the way Kjerstad has worked since getting healthy, and the impact it had on him. They see it with each and every swing he takes.
“I knew if he could just get healthy, he’s a hitter, man,” Thompson said. “And hitter’s hit.”
‘The hand you’re dealt’
There’s a joke Westburg often tells those around him in the Orioles clubhouse, when all the players reminisce on their baseball experiences in high school or college. Westburg played three years at Mississippi State, and all three years he faced Kjerstad and Arkansas multiple times a season.
The only time the Bulldogs could get Kjerstad out, Westburg tells, is when the Arkansas star was ejected from a game for arguing over balls and strikes in 2019.
Westburg recalls the “relaxed state” Kjerstad would exhibit in the batter’s box, “almost like, when he steps in, he’s asleep up there until the pitch is coming in.” And then when it came in, Kjerstad did damage.
He’d do it to his own team, too, playing in fall intrasquad scrimmages against the Arkansas pitching staff during 2019 and hitting about .500.
“We had a good staff,” Van Horn said, “and we couldn’t get him out. He was getting two hits a day, if not more. It was crazy.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down Kjerstad’s junior year 16 games into the season, he was hitting .448 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.304. Even then, though, Van Horn said Kjerstad felt he wasn’t at his best at the plate yet.
His coaching staff at Arkansas believe Kjerstad would have been a Golden Spikes candidate had the pandemic not interrupted the world, an award given to the top college player in the country. But Baltimore noticed what Kjerstad was capable of anyway, even with a shortened campaign. The Orioles drafted Kjerstad with the second overall pick that year.
He wouldn’t make his professional debut for a full two years.
Shortly after Kjerstad signed, he was diagnosed with myocarditis. He couldn’t do any pushups or situps, let alone pick up a bat and do what he loved most — peppering the field with baseballs.
While the draft picks around him made their professional debuts, pushing through the ranks of the minor leagues, Kjerstad waited for his chance to return.
“It wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t control it, and it is what it is,” Van Horn said. “It’s just the hand you’re dealt, and you’ve just got to fight through it. I thought he handled it pretty well. It’s not like he was all bummed out, thinking how this was going to throw me off to where he couldn’t catch back up.”
As Thompson noted: “He has that big-time hitter’s confidence. Like, ‘Yeah, I’ll get back. And when I do get back in there, I’m going to perform.’”
‘This is going to be a good time out here’
Kjerstad was ahead in the count, 3-0, during his first game in the Arizona Fall League. He had returned to the field in June 2022, rose from Low-A Delmarva to High-A Aberdeen, and then joined the Scottsdale Scorpions at the suggestion of Orioles minor league coordinator Matt Blood.
Kjerstad had jumped at the opportunity, of course, eager for any chance to play more baseball after missing it for two years. So in that three-ball count, Kjerstad didn’t want to wait for a chance to pass him by. He had waited enough.
Right-hander Leam Mendez grooved a fastball over the heart of the plate, and Kjerstad unleashed.
The ball sailed out of the yard for a pull-side home run.
“I was like, ‘Dang, this is going to be a good time out here,’” Kjerstad said.
Kjerstad experienced the struggles that can go along with professional baseball in Aberdeen, when he hit .233 in 43 games — an average more than 100 percentage points lower than he ever produced in college. With the IronBirds, Kjerstad felt he was inconsistent with his approach. And when he found the pitch he had been targeting, his timing wasn’t always perfect.
He found his timing immediately in the Arizona Fall League, however, crushing five homers while hitting .357 in 22 games. Soon, each at-bat became necessary viewing.
“Every time he stepped into the box, everybody’s eyes were on him,” said Matt Tuiasosopo, Kjertsad’s manager in Scottsdale. “He just has that aura about him, that little bounce in his step when he steps into the batter’s box. You feel his presence when he’s walking to the plate. Everybody’s getting their popcorn out. They’re getting ready because he’s going to hit something hard somewhere.”
Those 22 games — and the league’s MVP award — served as a launch pad into his offseason training in Fayetteville, and then propelled him into his first major league spring training camp.
Kjerstad is grateful for the award, grateful to be selected as the top player out of a league full of prospects. But his mind didn’t linger on the honor for long.
“The next day,” Kjerstad said, “it was kind of like, ‘That was cool, but I’m not really going to hang my hat on that.’”
‘Your story’s never finished’
Sitting at a high-top table near the batting cage building he would later clobber with a home run ball, Kjerstad thought about it all — from the heights of Arkansas to the lows of myocarditis to the climb back to this point.
“Definitely not the way you draw it up,” Kjerstad said.
He’s now 24, approaching three years from when he was selected with the second overall pick in the 2020 draft. His goals for this year? The consistency buzzword pops out. His enjoyment at the ballpark? It has always been this high, Kjerstad insists.
But would he change anything? Would Kjerstad fall down the rabbit hole of a different reality, one in which his progress was never slowed, in which he was leading the pack of prospects toward the majors instead of playing catch-up?
“We all have this picture-perfect plan we envision of doing certain things at certain times, one after the other, but never envision the setbacks,” Kjerstad said. “And that’s the beauty of the journey. Your story’s never finished, and there’s always going to be some things thrown into your story that you never really anticipated. But that’s part of the journey.”
This is how it worked out. Kjerstad understands that, knowing no amount of wishing will change where he is or how he got here.
He also knows there are ample blank pages remaining in this story, waiting to be filled in with each batting practice swing that leaves onlookers staring back at the batter in the box. It took him two years to return to the baseball field. Now that he’s here, there’s no doubting what comes next.
“I knew the kind of hitter he was, the kind of player he was,” Westburg said. “I’m just happy he’s back to the real Heston Kjerstad.”