PHILADELPHIA — Heston Kjerstad is back on the field. Fifteen months after the Orioles selected him second overall in the 2020 MLB Draft, Kjerstad resumed baseball activity this week at the club’s complex in Sarasota, Fla., marking a milestone in one of it’s most highly-rated prospect’s recovery from myocarditis.
Finally back swinging the bat again! pic.twitter.com/iWMJyonTNS
“Finally back swinging the bat again!” Kjerstad tweeted from his personal account Tuesday, captioning a video of him taking batting practice.
The development comes one month after Kjerstad reported to and resumed physical activity at the Orioles’ training facility, on the heels of more than a year spent inactive at home in Texas as a result of his heart condition. Myocarditis manifests as inflammation of the heart muscle, typically brought on by viral causes. Kjerstad, 22, has not been made available to speak publicly since the issue arose last summer.
“This is great news,” Orioles general manager Mike Elias said in August. “He’s progressing into a rehab status of getting back toward baseball activity hopefully soon. This was a very tricky condition and something, being cardiac-related, we were exceedingly cautious about and continue to have a cautious mindset toward.”
When speaking on Kjerstad last month, Elias went on to say the hope was Kjerstad would be ready to return to game action by Spring Training 2022. Baltimore hoped to have Kjerstad in camp this past spring, but he never reported due to the lingering illness, and he last played competitively in March 2020 for the University of Arkansas. Kjerstad was one of the country’s premier college bats in Fayetteville, hitting .343 with 37 home runs across three seasons for the Razorbacks. He played in two College World Series and for Team USA during his collegiate tenure.
With the Orioles, Kjerstad ranks as the No. 7 prospect in baseball’s top-ranked farm system, per MLB Pipeline. It’s unclear at the moment which affiliate he would join in 2022 if cleared medically to play.
O's fall in extras in Philly
The decision defied traditional baseball logic. But then again, nothing about the situation was traditional. On one hand, Brandon Hyde could have had César Valdez face Bryce Harper, the red-hot National League MVP favorite, with two outs and the potential tying run on third in the 10th inning of a one-run contest at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night. On the other hand, he could walk Harper, putting the winning run on for Valdez to face J.T. Realmuto with the platoon advantage.
Longtime baseball logic considers intentionally placing the winning run aboard faulty. But that adage was derived long before modern extra-innings rules placed an automatic runner at second to start every inning after the ninth. The way Hyde saw it, he had two bad options, given the All-Star caliber threat both Harper or Realmuto bring to the plate.
In the end, the decision to walk Harper loomed over what turned into Baltimore’s 3-2 loss. Hyde watched from the Orioles’ bench as Harper scored on Realmuto’s walk-off two-run triple four pitches later. That brought an emphatic end to a night during which seven Orioles relievers before Valdez combined to hold the Phillies to one run in regulation.
“I didn’t want Harper to beat us there,” Hyde said. “Realmuto is an All-Star, superstar-type player. I didn’t want him to beat us either. We just made pitches too close to the plate there with their pinch-hitter on deck.”
Said Harper: “I don’t think I’m ever surprised in that situation. I always ask Joe [Girardi] and [Phillies hitting coach] Joe Dillon: ‘What do you guys think? Are they going to pitch to me?’ And they always tell me no. So, I think Girardi said to me last time: If it's me, there’s no chance.”
Electing an all-hands-on-deck approach to plug Chris Ellis’ (arm fatigue) rotation spot, the Orioles used an assembly line of arms to hold the Phillies to Andrew McCutchen’s sixth-inning run-scoring double through nine. They mustered little more than Ramón Urías’ RBI single against five Phillies relievers, until Austin Hays’ go-ahead double in the 10th. That continued an impressive September for Hays, who has reached base safely in 17 of his last 18 games. The outfielder has seven homers, 19 RBIs and an OPS of 1.013 during that stretch.
“Our pitchers were outstanding,” Hyde said. “We pitched extremely well, but had a tough time mustering up much offense.”
All told, it was an unusual performance for two bullpens that entered play ranked last (Baltimore) and sixth-worst (Philadelphia) in reliever ERA. Right-handers Marcos Diplán (six outs) and Thomas Eshelman (eight) provided multiple innings for the Orioles, who will almost certainly shake up their ‘pen for fresh arms before Wednesday’s series finale.