NORFOLK, Va. — The first night they were all back in town, they knew where to go. They’ve been in the area long enough now to have favorites, and the hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant near Virginia Beach is atop that list.

There were Kyle Stowers, Heston Kjerstad and Coby Mayo, all pulling into the parking lot, ready for another year (would it be that long?) with the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate.

“We all see each other, we have a smile on our face: ‘We’re back,’” Mayo said.

This is Stowers’ fourth season playing for the Tides. Kjerstad and Mayo reached this level only last year. Connor Norby and Jackson Holliday round out the quintet of Orioles prospects waiting in the wings, eyes drifting toward Baltimore even as their feet are in Norfolk. Three of them are ranked within Baseball America’s Top 100 list, with Holliday the No. 1 prospect.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

They are all here because the pipeline is momentarily blocked with talent up ahead. And, even as they all post eye-popping numbers in the minor leagues and during major league spring training, these prospects knew to meet up at the Mexican restaurant.

For the time being, they’ll lean on each other — because there is a mixture of frustration and disappointment. They’ll dream together of a future in the majors. But to get there they know their ultimate focus must remain in Norfolk, on their performances in the minors, before those dreams can be realized.

“We all talk about it. We’re not stupid, right?” Norby said. “We’re not dumb to the situation. We know our talent level, but our job is to just continue to get better.”

Norby echoed what manager Buck Britton told the clubhouse on their first day together this week, because it rang true: “We can’t focus on where we’re trying to go.”

“Obviously, we know where we’re trying to go, but we have to be where our feet are and be here and be present,” Norby continued. “Because if we aren’t here, it doesn’t matter, because you’re not going to give yourself a shot to go up.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

So the top five in the batting order — all highly regarded prospects in Baltimore’s system — rang in the season by showing just how ready they are. Holliday homered in his first plate appearance of the season, Norby singled, Kjerstad singled, Mayo singled, and Stowers reached after he was hit by a pitch.

That top five could all play in the major leagues someplace, and they know it, even if they don’t say it in such certain terms when a recorder is running.

Mayo, a third baseman, showed it during the spring when he hit .360 with a 1.008 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Holliday hit .311 as a 20-year-old. Stowers blasted seven homers.

Baltimore Orioles right fielder Heston Kjerstad (13) runs to first base during a Grapefruit League game against the Detroit Tigers at Ed Smith Stadium on February 27, 2024.
Heston Kjerstad, the second overall draft pick in 2020, made it to Triple-A, and briefly to the big leagues, for the first time last season. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“Everybody wants to be in the big leagues, but not everybody can be in the big leagues, especially when you have a top MLB team and a lot of good players on it,” said Kjerstad, who made his Orioles debut last year. “We have a lot of good players down here, too. We stay where our feet are.”

For each of them, there is a grieving period after missing out on the opening day roster.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Stowers drove with his wife and dog from Sarasota, Florida, to Norfolk. He used that drive to process his return to a level he first reached in 2021. He called his family and friends to check in on life away from baseball, then he prepared to lock in once more.

“I think you kind of have to turn the page quickly and kind of laugh it off. You get here, it’s not like there’s only one of us who didn’t make it.”

Norfolk Tides infielder Coby Mayo

“You can go about it one of two ways. You can let it affect you negatively on the field, or you can use it as motivation,” Stowers said. “I’m trying to be present here and do everything I can to be successful here, and I think that’s going to ultimately — whether I’m here or up top — just getting back to moment by moment is going to really help me in the long run.”

Mayo added: “I think it hurts at first for some of the guys. Everyone here had a really good spring. Everyone was deserving of making a big league roster. But I think you kind of have to turn the page quickly and kind of laugh it off. You get here, it’s not like there’s only one of us who didn’t make it.”

In the batting cages Thursday, the Tides watched the Orioles enjoy an opening day to remember, with Corbin Burnes recording 11 strikeouts while the offense posted 11 runs. Less than two weeks ago, many of these players were all in the same clubhouse.

“You feel like you’re part of it, right?” Stowers said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Tides watched closely because their friends are there. Stowers was drafted in 2019 with Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson — stars at the highest level — and he roomed with four players during spring training who made the opening day roster (Rutschman, Henderson, Colton Cowser and Ryan Mountcastle).

Connor Norby (94) gets ready to swing for a pitch in the sixth inning of a game against the Tigers on 3/2/23. The Baltimore Orioles lost to the Detroit Tigers, 10-3, in the Florida Grapefruit League matchup.
Connor Norby reached base in his first plate appearance for Norfolk Friday night, as did every other one of the highly ranked prospects at the top of the lineup. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Instead, Stowers is here. But there are few players who carry a better mindset. And, as a result, he has become a steadying presence for many of his Tides teammates because of his even-keel mantra.

“I call Stowey my therapist,” Norby said, and he’s not kidding.

Go back to last season. The Tides played a Thursday day game, and Norby wasn’t playing at the level he expected of himself. Stowers knew Norby was in a rut — perhaps more mentally than anything else — and told him to grab his wallet.

They were going to the bar at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

After a couple of beverages, Norby had laid out his thoughts to Stowers.

“I just need to let some things out sometimes, and he’s a great ear and he keeps it real with me,” Norby said. “Shoots a straight arrow. If I’m being negative, he’ll call me out. If I’m feeling some type of way about something, he’ll want to talk about it with me. Same thing with anyone else if they’re going through it. But me and him, we lean on each other a lot.”

The pair haven’t needed to enjoy an impromptu therapy session yet this year. But when the season drags onward and a path to the major leagues looks as murky as ever?

They’ll need each other.

“Listen, it could be two weeks and guys are going up, it could be two months, it could be all five of us in the big leagues at the end of the season,” Mayo said. “But this is where we’re at right now and we’re going to take advantage of being with each other every day.”

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

More From The Banner