Heston Kjerstad leads Orioles power barrage in Grapefruit League opener

Published 2/25/2023 4:17 p.m. EST, Updated 2/25/2023 10:31 p.m. EST

SARASOTA, Fla. — If the first snuck over the left field wall by a narrow margin, the second ball that leaped off Heston Kjerstad’s bat in the Orioles’ Grapefruit League opener Saturday was a no-doubter.

It flew toward the left-center field gap, cleared the fence and kept going. For the second time Saturday afternoon, Kjerstad rounded the bases at his own pace — which was still fast. He knows no other way, considering he entered camp this year with something to prove.

Heston Kjerstad (75) homers at Ed Smith Stadium during the 5th inning of a game against the Minnesota Twins on 2/25/23. The Baltimore Orioles hosted the Twins for their home opener as the Florida Grapefruit League started on Saturday.

Kjerstad, the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, missed his first season of professional ball because he was diagnosed with myocarditis, the inflammation of the heart muscle. He missed spring training in 2022 because of a hamstring injury.

It’s one game, but with two home runs in two at-bats, Kjerstad was the biggest producer in a 10-5 Orioles win against the Minnesota Twins.

The outcome of the game matters little. But to Kjerstad and others who made an immediate impact in front of manager Brandon Hyde, the first impressions couldn’t have been better.

“First day at the yard, there’s a lot more to come,” Kjerstad said. “Definitely a good little start, but I’ve got to remain focused. It’s a long year. Just keep showing up to the park and having good ABs.”

Jackson Holliday, the 19-year-old first overall selection in 2022, made his spring training debut and doubled. Terrin Vavra flashed unexpected power. And Kjerstad raked, announcing his presence with a bang — two of them.

The Orioles have learned about all the new rules, including the pitch clock and shift restrictions. On Saturday, they played a game with them for the first time with few hitches. And between it all, there was the euphoria that accompanies big-time hits, even if they come on a steamy day in Florida.

“Feel like I’m in a good spot strength-wise and my swing is feeling good right now,” Kjerstad said, “so hopefully be able to build upon that and be able to carry it into the season.”

Here’s what was gleaned from Baltimore’s first action of the spring at Ed Smith Stadium.

The pitch clock

The most interesting thing about the first pitch of Saturday’s game wasn’t the outcome (a ball). It was whether the timer located by the center field fence would approach zero.

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Left-hander Drew Rom, one of 12 rotation candidates, labored through the first inning of spring training by allowing a leadoff triple to Twins shortstop Nick Gordon and a sacrifice fly to score him before retiring the side in order in the second inning.

By the third inning, when right-hander Eduard Bazardo took the mound, that clock faded into the background for the pitchers. Hyde said there was “a noticeable difference” in pace, even with 14 combined walks.

It was different for an established major league batter, however. Anthony Santander stepped into the box late in the fourth inning, receiving an automatic strike.

Santander said he timed his walk-up on purpose, watching the clock to ensure he stepped into the box and looked to the pitcher with nine seconds remaining — one more than what warranted the automatic strike. But he received the strike anyway.

“Especially when you’re coming from the outfield, you don’t have enough time even to drink water,” Santander said. “Or you have to make a sprint. I don’t know. You put on your shin guard, your elbow guard, it’s tough.”

But there were few enforcements overall; outfielder Daz Cameron also received an automatic strike. Santander still worked a walk despite the immediate 0-1 hole.

Most of Baltimore’s pitching staff has already experienced the pitch clock while playing in the minor leagues last season. Still, Rom said he felt like the game sped up on him slightly in the first inning.

“I kind of let the game get to me rather than taking myself to the game,” said Rom, who held a 4.43 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A last year. “It’s really not going to play that much of a factor, especially for guys who have had experience with it, and I think a bunch of the big league guys will hit their stride after a month or so.”

A glut of prospects

Kjerstad stood in the limelight for his 3-for-3 day, but several other prospects impressed at the plate. Joey Ortiz, who started at shortstop, cranked a triple to the center field fence in the fourth inning.

Ortiz is renowned for his glovework in the infield, but he set out this offseason to prove that his bat is every bit worthy of discussion after hitting .346 for Triple-A Norfolk in 26 games last year.

Joey Ortiz (65) smiles after tripling at Ed Smith Stadium during the 4th inning of a game against the Minnesota Twins on 2/25/23. The Baltimore Orioles hosted the Twins for their home opener as the Florida Grapefruit League started on Saturday.

Vavra earned plaudits for his offensive work from Hyde. Outfielder Colton Cowser walked twice, infielder César Prieto drove in two and Holliday looked at ease in his first spring training.

“I’m going to try to give him as much of this experience,” Hyde said of Holliday. “I think him just soaking in major league spring training games, being around our coaches, I think it’s all really beneficial for him.”

First base competition

Several of the Orioles’ nine first base candidates got at-bats in the first game. Ryan O’Hearn started and checked in with a base hit through the right side — the type of ground ball that might’ve been an out last year with the shift.

Curtis Terry came in for Adley Rutschman at designated hitter and promptly clobbered a three-run home run. And Josh Lester, who has more experience at third, came in to play first toward the later innings.

Since Ryan Mountcastle is all but guaranteed to be the starter, the Orioles are focusing on finding a left-handed first baseman to accompany the 26-year-old. Lester and O’Hearn are both left-handed bats. Terry is a right-handed hitter.

A less-traditional candidate that has been floated about is Vavra, the utility infielder who began practicing first base in earnest this offseason but played second base Saturday. Vavra, a left-handed batter, isn’t known for his power. His on-base percentage (.340) was higher than his slugging percentage (.337) in 40 major league games last year.

But he clobbered a two-run homer to the deepest part of the ballpark and added a ground-rule double to his day, impressing early as he pushes to earn a roster spot.

What’s next?

The Orioles head to Lakeland, Florida, on Sunday to face the Detroit Tigers at 1:05 p.m. (Radio: 97.9 FM). Right-hander Dean Kremer will start for Baltimore, and Hyde added that Holliday would be involved again.