When Sept. 1 passed and Heston Kjerstad remained in Triple-A, it seemed like the former Arkansas baseball star would have to wait another offseason before taking the final step in his rapid ascent through the minor leagues.
That changed Wednesday when first baseman Ryan Mountcastle left the Orioles’ 1-0 loss to the Cardinals in the third inning with an apparent shoulder injury.
His status is still unknown, but Baltimore went ahead and called up Kjerstad for its final playoff push Thursday afternoon. To make room for him on the roster, outfielder Ryan McKenna was optioned to Triple-A.
With 17 games remaining in the regular season, the Orioles hold a two-game lead in the American League East race. They’re just ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays, which are in town for a four-game series beginning Thursday.
Baltimore is trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and capture a division title for the first time since 2014. Its magic number to at least clinch a wild card spot is four, so that could feasibly happen in this series.
Kjerstad was not in the starting lineup for Thursday’s series opener, but could make his debut off the bench or in one of the upcoming games. He’ll also be eligible to play in the playoffs.
When he does get on the field, Kjerstad — the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft — will become the 65th former Arkansas baseball player to reach the big leagues and third to do so this year, following Dominic Fletcher and Isaiah Campbell. All three were teammates on the Razorbacks’ 2018 and 2019 teams that made the College World Series.
Heston Kjerstad’s Production
The move comes with Heston Kjerstad actually in the midst of a slump.
Since Aug. 3, he is hitting just .235 with a .680 OPS across 34 games. The good news is that he was hitting .352 with a 1.030 OPS through his first 42 games in Triple-A.
Because of that hot start, Kjerstad’s batting average in Norfolk only recently dipped below .300. He’ll head to Baltimore with a .298/.371/.498 slash line that includes 10 home runs and 32 RBIs in 76 games.
It’s just the second time he’s had an extended slump in the pros. His first was at High-A Aberdeen, where he ended last season. After slashing .463/.551/.650 in 22 games at Single-A Delmarva, Kjerstad slashed just .233/.312/.362 in 43 games following that promotion.
He got back on track pretty quickly, though, earning MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League with an impressive .357/.385/.622 slash line. Kjerstad carried that into the spring by hitting .381 with four home runs as a non-roster invitee to big league spring training.
That landed him in Double-A to start the season and he tore it up. In 46 games with Bowie, Kjerstad slashed .310/.384/.576 with 11 home runs and 23 RBIs. That led the promotion to Triple-A.
His production in college was also impressive, as he slashed .343/.421/.590 with 37 home runs and 129 RBIs in 150 games with Arkansas baseball.
Long Journey from Arkansas to Baltimore
In normal times, Heston Kjerstad likely would have received this call much earlier. Unfortunately for him, the last three years have been nothing but normal.
His final season with the Razorbacks was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic or else he may have made a run at the Golden Spikes Award, as he was hitting .448 with six home runs and 20 RBIs in 16 games at the time of the shutdown.
The Orioles took him second overall in that year’s MLB Draft, but it was a full two years before he finally made his professional debut.
The minor league season was canceled in 2020 and then Kjerstad missed all of 2021 because of myocarditis, a heart condition. He recovered in time for 2022, but a hamstring injury delayed his debut until June 10 last year.
So while it was exactly a two-year wait for him to begin his professional career, it took him less than that — about 15 months — to climb through the minors and reach the big leagues.
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