Kjerstad often resilient following hitless games

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Sunday, June 24, 2018
Heston Kjerstad, Arkansas left fielder, hits a RBI single in the 1st inning against Texas Sunday, June 17, 2018, during game three of the NCAA Men's College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.
Photo by Ben Goff
Heston Kjerstad, Arkansas left fielder, hits a RBI single in the 1st inning against Texas Sunday, June 17, 2018, during game three of the NCAA Men's College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.

OMAHA, Neb. — An 0-for-5 night with five strikeouts on the road against an SEC rival would be more than enough to rattle most players heading into the next day.

Heston Kjerstad, Arkansas’ star left fielder and the league’s freshman of the year recipient, isn’t one of those players. Even a platinum sombrero – on Cinco de Mayo of all days – couldn’t keep Kjerstad down.

"That's just baseball," he said. "It was just one of those days. I didn't even touch a ball, I don't think."

The next day, after dropping down to sixth in Arkansas’ order for the second time all season, he bounced back with a 2-for-4 outing and drove in three runs in a close a loss at LSU. He hit his 10th home run of the season in his second at-bat of the day and also notched a two-run single in a four-run Arkansas seventh to pull the Razorbacks back within striking distance in the decisive third game.

That kind of resilience has become common place for the Amarillo, Texas, native following hitless games. Including his tough Saturday in Baton Rouge, Kjerstad has been held without a hit in six of Arkansas’ last 20 games.

In five subsequent games, he’s hitting .500 (11-of-22) with 10 RBI. It’s a good sign for Arkansas as it enters tomorrow’s College World Series finals against Oregon State. Kjerstad went 0-for-5 at the plate in Friday’s semifinal win over Florida.

Arkansas hitting coach Nate Thompson has been impressed with Kjerstad’s emotional maturity, which is beyond the freshman’s years, he said. Kjerstad met with him following the five strikeout game at LSU to go over the worst offensive night of the his young career.

The message wasn’t a pleasant one, but Kjerstad grew from the experience at Alex Box Stadium and the chat with Thompson.

“The fact of the matter was, and I told him, ‘You weren’t on time with anything. You were in-between everything. Like, you weren’t on time with the off-speed, you weren’t on time with the fastball. There was just nothing you were ready for,’” Thompson said. “He was caught guessing the whole time.

“And that’s one place as a hitter, especially when you face pitching as tough as he has, you can’t be,” he added. “He handled it like a champion and comes back the next day with a big day offensively. I was really proud of him because he cares, and I think that hurt him that night when he looked back on it.”

Kjerstad said he returned to his hotel room that night and refocused.

“I didn’t overthink it,” Kjerstad said. “There’s players in the big leagues that go through the same stuff and I thought to myself, ‘This is just another challenge. If I can’t handle this, then I can’t handle the success that comes with a good day.’ I was anxious to get to the next day so I could prove myself again.

“I just own up to everything — my failure and my success. You’ve just got to take it all in stride.”

In Arkansas’ final game of the SEC Tournament against LSU, Kjerstad again went hitless. But in the first game of the Fayetteville Regional, he unloaded on Oral Roberts to the tune of three hits and four runs batted in, sparking what would become a five-game hitting streak entering Game 3 of the super regional against South Carolina.

He finished 0-for-2 against the Gamecocks that Monday, but plated a pair of runs and drew two walks. The next game, against Texas in Omaha, Kjerstad tallied three more hits and drove in three runs in a convincing win over the Longhorns.

As a marked man in Arkansas’ lineup, Kjerstad has adapted well to the caliber of pitching he’s seen this season, Thompson added. And his ability to rinse his memory of poor games at the plate and rebound the next time out is part of what sets him apart from a majority of first-year players.

“Sometimes it’s just a mental adjustment,” Kjerstad said. “Some days you’re not going to get the pitches to drive, but the next day I just try to keep on doing the same thing with my approach and just play baseball.”

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