Isaiah Campbell Made History in MLB Debut + Heston Kjerstad Rising

Isaiah Campbell, Arkansas baseball, Seattle Mariners, Pro Hogs
photo credit: Arkansas Travelers

Isaiah Campbell was called up by the Seattle Mariners on Thursday and became the latest Arkansas baseball player to reach the big leagues.

He is the Razorbacks’ 64th former player to appear in an MLB game and second to debut this season, following Dominic Fletcher with the Diamondbacks.

The move came just as Campbell was about to pitch in Northwest Arkansas for the first time since 2019, as the Arkansas Travelers — Seattle’s Double-A affiliate — are in Springdale for a five-game series against the NWA Naturals that began Tuesday.

Instead, he headed to Houston and, after not pitching in Thursday’s game, threw a perfect eighth inning in the Mariners’ 10-1 win over the Astros on Friday. Campbell induced a pair of fly outs before striking out Jake Meyers to end the frame. He needed only 13 pitches.

By getting on the mound for the first time, Campbell made history as just the second player born in Portugal to play in the big leagues. The first was Frank Thompson, who made 12 appearances in 1875. He was a position player, though, so Campbell was the first pitcher.

However, it’s worth noting that Campbell was born in Portugal because his father, Parry, was stationed there with the U.S. Air Force. He also lived in Germany and Turkey before growing up in Kansas, where he was recruited by Arkansas baseball out of Olathe South High School just outside of Kansas City.

It will likely be a temporary stay for Campbell, as it’s the result of an injury to starter Bryce Miller, who is on the 15-day injured list because of a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand.

Seattle brought up Tommy Milone for a spot start in his place Wednesday, but it was just a one-day stint. He’ll be sent back down to make room for Campbell, with Miller expected to return following the All-Star break.

Isaiah Campbell’s Rise

Whether or not he sticks this time, Isaiah Campbell has enjoyed a rapid ascent through the Mariners’ farm system since getting healthy and moving to the bullpen — but it was a slow climb to that point.

A second-round pick in 2019, he didn’t pitch that summer because he had thrown 118 1/3 innings during the Razorbacks’ run to the College World Series. The pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor-league season and then he pitched just 19 1/3 innings in 2021 because he needed bone spurs removed from his right elbow.

Campbell had a 1.50 ERA over his first four starts for High-A Everett last season, but his elbow issues flared up again and, after being shelved for about a month, he returned to action as a closer with the hope that the decreased workload would be easier on his elbow.

It proved to be a great move, as he went 10 for 10 in save opportunities and threw 15 straight scoreless innings before getting called up to Double-A Arkansas.

“It’s almost like a second chance, but in a different way,” Campbell told The Athletic in February. “I’m not changing positions, just changing my role. But it’s given me kind of that second life and that happiness about baseball. And just knowing that puts me in a really good spot.”

Facing better competition, Campbell posted a 3.46 ERA with 24 strikeouts and only two walks in 13 innings for the Travelers. It was encouraging enough for Seattle to add him to its 40-man roster in November, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft, and invite him to big league spring training.

He remained in Double-A and has been even better this season, posting a 2.63 ERA and 1.04 WHIP with 27 strikeouts and seven walks in 24 innings. That includes seven straight scoreless outings, the last six of which have also been hitless.

Heston Kjerstad Next?

Isaiah Campbell is the third player on Arkansas baseball’s 2018 national runner-up team to reach the big leagues, following Evan Lee and Dominic Fletcher. He and Fletcher were also key members of the 2019 team that made it back to Omaha.

Another one of their teammates could be joining them soon, as Heston Kjerstad has done nothing but hit since finally getting cleared to return to action after his debut was delayed by a bout with myocarditis.

He hit .463 with a 1.201 OPS in 22 games at Single-A Delmarva last season before getting called up to High-A Aberdeen. Despite struggling some there, Kjerstad ended the year hot — hitting .333 over the final 10 games — and carried it over to the Arizona Fall League, where he earned MVP honors after slashing .357/.385/.622 in 22 games.

That earned him an invitation to Baltimore’s big league camp in spring training and all he did was slash .381/.409/.810 — good for a 1.219 OPS — in 23 games.

The Orioles sent him to Double-A Bowie to start the year, but he was called up after slashing .310/.384/.576 with 11 home runs in 46 games. Incredibly, in Triple-A, he’s been even better.

Through his first 25 games with Norfolk, Kjerstad has a 1.016 OPS. He’s slashing .323/.414/.602 with 14 extra-base hits — including five home runs, the latest of which was a 407-foot blast — and 12 RBIs. He’s mostly played the corner outfield spots or been the designated hitter, but Kjerstad has also played some first base this year.

His performance earned him a spot in the 2023 MLB All-Star Futures Game, which is at 6 p.m. CT Saturday in Seattle.

Former Arkansas Baseball Players in the MLB

  • Brian Anderson – Milwaukee Brewers
  • Andrew Benintendi – Chicago White Sox
  • Isaiah Campbell – Seattle Mariners
  • Dominic Fletcher – Arizona Diamondbacks
  • Zach Jackson – Oakland Athletics
  • James McCann – Baltimore Orioles
  • Colin Poche – Tampa Bay Rays*
  • Drew Smyly – Chicago Cubs
  • Ryne Stanek – Houston Astros
  • Trevor Stephan – Cleveland Guardians

*Poche began his career at Arkansas before transferring to Dallas Baptist
**Jalen Beeks was sent down to Triple-A by the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday


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