Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: For Kjerstad, it's silent 'J' and loud bat
Arkansas left fielder Heston Kjerstad (center) is given the Hog hat by Hunter Wilson after Kjerstad hit a three-run home run against Dayton Thursday, March 1, 2018, during the fifth inning at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Heston Kjerstad carefully stopped the reporter as the interview seemed to come to the end. The reporter was reaching across the table for a concluding handshake.
Just a minute, Kjerstad said. He patted the reporter’s notebook. He wanted to make sure he covered something.
“I don’t know if we talked about this and I just want to be sure,” he said. “I want to say that it’s an honor to be at Arkansas, play baseball for these coaches, with these teammates and in front of these fans. It’s a great place. I’m so excited to be here. There is no place better.”
Double-checking the notes, most of that had been covered earlier, just maybe not in one swing. But that’s Kjerstad, always with an effective swing to end an at-bat. He’s been like that for all seven months at Arkansas. Really, he’s been like that at every level of an all-star career.
The true freshman left fielder from Amarillo, Texas, is the same every day, with the same great approach at the plate, in the dugout or off the field — always with a great smile.
It all reminded of his first appearance in the media room after cracking three hits in the season opener, his first college game. He joined two veterans at the interview table with last-second instructions from communications specialist John Thomas: talk loud, be clear.
Kjerstad talked slowly, loudly and covered all the questions sent his way. It was like his at-bats: pitches either hit that lead shoulder or he puts them in play, spraying line drives to all fields based on where the ball is pitched.
“He’s a special player,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn keeps saying over and over, like after the home run that lifted Arkansas to a 1-0 victory over Arizona in a pitcher’s duel in San Diego.
It was a night when dew covered the field early in what California native Dominic Fletcher calls “the marine layer,” heavy wet air that comes in from the Pacific at dusk.
“Fletcher had told us about it,” Kjerstad said. “Sure enough, we go out for the first inning and the grass is wet. You feel that cold, damp air. There were some balls crushed that night that didn’t make it to the wall. Jared Gates hit one in the ninth. I was on second. I came racing around third just knowing it was way out. No, sir.”
Third base coach Nate Thompson held Kjerstad up and they both exclaimed that it was unbelievable it wasn’t a home run.
That puts it in perspective what Kjerstad did in the fifth inning, crushing a high fastball the opposite direction over the wall in left center, near the 410-foot mark in the deepest portion of the park.
“I had to say there have been a lot of fun moments already this year, but that one was pretty good,” Kjerstad said. “It was my first home run.
“I’ll also remember my first hit. I can still see it going through the right side. I was committed to play here for so long, that it just meant so much to finally help this team.”
Yes, Kjerstad was an early commitment. He began to follow the Razorbacks as a ninth grader, then committed as a sophomore. He recalls watching on TV as Andrew Benintendi had a breakout sophomore campaign that ended in the College World Series.
“I followed him and I wanted to come see this stadium,” he said. “I was being recruited by the other teams in the region: Oklahoma, Wichita State and Texas Tech. But I wanted to play for Coach Van Horn. I wanted to play for these fans.”
Kjerstad has been impressive at the plate and in the field. After hitting over .400 in the first three weeks, his average stood at .358 after the first week of SEC play. He's started every game for the 16-4 Hogs, surely to rise from their No. 10 spot after a three-game sweep of No. 4 Kentucky. He has two assists on throws for outs at the plate. He's got 22 RBI, tied for the team lead with fellow freshman Casey Martin.
“On both of those (assists), he got his body behind the ball, was square and delivered great throws,” Van Horn said. “We knew he was a good hitter, but he’s really done well. I knew at some point he might be a guy in the three hole, but I’ve put him there and I don’t think it’s too big for him. We will move him around based on how we want to stack or left and right hitters.”
Kjerstad leads the Razorbacks with 22 RBI this season and hit over .400 during the first three weeks.
Lefty pitchers have tried to jam him inside. He’s already been hit 11 times. He’s only gone down on strikes five times, lowest among regulars.
“The book on him is that if you don’t jam him, he’ll go the other way,” Van Horn said. “So they are pitching him inside and if they miss a little he’ll get it.
“The one against Arizona was a big swing for us. The air was heavy and he hit it a long way the opposite way. It’s one thing to hit one out to the opposite field down the line, where it might not be that far. He hit it out to the deepest part of the park against Arizona. It went a long way.”
Kjerstad hammered another long home run the other way against Kentucky, a three-run shot to deep left center. It was part of the 13 homers the Hogs hit against Kentucky. Kjerstad also blasted an opposite-field drive to the warning track in almost the same spot later in the series for a sacrifice fly and another RBI.
Van Horn praised both Kjerstad and Martin for their contributions in the Kentucky series, but also noted they were a little nervous in their first SEC series.
"They chased (pitches outside the strike zone) a little more than I've seen from them so far this season," Van Horn said. "They were a little anxious. They hadn't been that way. Hopefully, they'll settle down after this first weekend."
Kjerstad committed as a 5-10, 155-pounder projected to possibly hit leadoff. By the time he made it to campus he was 6-3, 190.
“I admit that I thought he’d be bigger in time,” Van Horn said. “I looked at his dad and he was a big man. He’s grown to about his size. Really, he’s still growing. He got bigger just over Christmas, picked up some weight. He’s still filling out.”
Dave Kjerstad is a giant of a man.
“I was sort of a late bloomer,” Heston Kjerstad said. “But my dad is 6-4, 250. I guess Coach Van Horn could see that I was going to grow.”
Dave Kjerstad gives Van Horn big props for picking up on that.
“I guess that’s what makes someone like Coach Van Horn so good, to have that kind of insight,” Dave Kjerstad said. “I wouldn’t have much confidence in recruiting a sophomore. But he saw something and he was right. To me, that’s pressure on the coach to see a 16-year-old and know that quickly, even on a bad day.”
That’s what it was on Van Horn’s first in-person scouting trip. He was following up on a recommendation from former assistant Tony Vitello. There had been multiple trips by the UA recruiting coordinator to see Kjerstad with the D-bats, the top travel team from the Dallas area.
“Coach Van Horn came to Arlington to see a showcase,” Dave Kjerstad said. “Heston struck out on pitches in the dirt, twice. He had a throw back from center bounce in to the infielder. After the game when Heston and I were together, he told me, ‘Dad, I guess I screwed that up.’
“But Coach Van Horn called him that night and told him he liked what he saw, especially that he didn’t let it get him down. He talked to him about his attitude. He just kept playing. He liked that. What I remember also was that Coach Van Horn was out there watching the entire game and it was about 105.”
Kjerstad gave his commitment soon after.
“How could you not want to come here?” he said. “There isn’t a better place. Coach Van Horn is a legend.”
Van Horn’s judgment was rewarded when Kjerstad filled out and his quick lefty stroke kept pumping out line drives. He made the all-tournament team last summer with the D-bats at the Connie Mack World Series, a U-19 tournament with the nation’s top talent.
Then, when he arrived in the fall, Kjerstad dominated the UA pitching staff. He hit .500 for the fall, leading the team and winning the left field job. He’d always played center field because of a strong arm. With Fletcher already the starter there, Kjerstad was happy to call left his new home.
There have been impressive moments in almost every area -- especially in attitude. He’s got it all. Teammates are impressed. Martin has been impressive, too, but he’s like others who noticed Kjerstad’s talents immediately in the fall. More importantly, Martin said it hasn’t changed his new friend.
“I’m proud of him for not getting a big head, staying level-headed and just competing every day,” Martin said. “That’s what makes him good.
“He has quick bat speed, quick hands and recognizes pitches. That will take him a long way.
“He can hit for contact, can run a little bit and has a little power. He’s got a good arm from the outfield.
“Against Arizona we won 1-0 because of his late-inning oppo home run. That shows how good of a player he is and how well he recognizes pitches. He trusts his hands and he has enough power that he can hit it out of the ballpark.”
Van Horn has played with a lot of different lineups, but most of them have had Kjerstad in the third spot.
“That’s a big spot for a freshmen, but it sure looks like he can handle it,” Van Horn said. “He’s not afraid of the stage.”
Kjerstad said he never worried where he was going to bat, just that he was going to bat.
“My goal first was just to help the team anyway possible,” he said. “If that meant platooning, fine. But I came here wanting to start. I just knew it was going to be about adjusting every day to something new.
“I’d faced good pitching before, but not like this every day. You might see high velocity once a week in high school. But the pitching at this level — and what we are about to see in the SEC — will make you adjust to something new every day.”
The big adjustment early this season has been the way college pitchers consistently pitch Kjerstad inside – way inside. With so many hit-by-pitches, he quickly donned a protective shield for his right bicep.
“No bruises,” he said. “It’s been kind of weird, though. The other day I went to some of our pitchers. I asked them, ‘Do I crowd the plate? Am I too close? What’s the deal?’ They all said, ‘No, it’s just going to be the way they try to get you out, jam you tight.”
Van Horn saw it immediately and understood.
“He’s so good with anything middle of the plate to the outside, just going the other way,” Van Horn said. “So the scouting report was jam him. Well, if you don’t get it way in, he’s going to rip it to the alley in right. So if you miss just a little in, he’s so quick and so now they are missing way in.”
Freshman pitcher Jackson Rutledge recalls the first week of fall practice when pitchers thought they had Kjerstad figured out.
“Curve balls in the dirt, he’d swing,” Rutledge said. “That lasted about a week, then he made the adjustment. He didn’t chase after that.”
It’s tough to recall any two freshmen -- Kjerstad and Martin -- playing this well this quickly. Senior Luke Bonfield has tried to prepare both for tough stretches, but there haven’t been any.
Heston Kjerstad was Arkansas' top hitter in the fall, going 5-for-5 during one of the team's fall scrimmages.
“Heston is a big leaguer,” Bonfield said of Kjerstad, but it fits for Martin, too. “That’s what I see. We all saw it pretty fast.
“And, it’s not just his talent, but the way he conducts himself. He’s special and has a bright future.
“He’s never too high, never too low. He reminds me of Benintendi. They have a different swing, but the same approach to the game.
“Heston’s swing is really good. The bat stays in the zone a long time. He gets it going early and then can adjust to pitches. We all respect what he can do.”
Still, the SEC can be tough on young hitters.
“I pulled him aside and told him that there can be rough spots,” Bonfield said. “Even before the season I told him you can get humbled in this league. The pitching is just that good. He just nods his head and works. He’s respected by our team. He’s a great kid and a good student.”
That’s part of the Kjerstad’s motto, treat teammates well and respect the game. Asked about big leaguers that he might want to emulate, there was a clear target: Derek Jeter.
“He treats everyone with such respect,” Kjerstad said. “He’s a great teammate. I want to be like that. I want to be a great teammate.”
In that vein, he’d rather talk about his teammates than himself. He knows a fast start can fade and it will be about making adjustments as SEC pitchers search for other ways to get him out.
Some stock baseball cliches were starting to dominate the interview until there was a mention of his parents. Kjerstad lit up.
“Oh, I can tell you lots about my mom and dad,” he said of parents Dave and Jody. “They came to Amarillo back in the 1980s, literally with nothing and have built a good business. They liked it and stayed. They were farming in South Dakota and it was a tough life. I’ve heard the stories.
“What they did with hard work is make a great life for my family, so that I could play baseball and be able to go with travel teams. We drove all over.
“I’d love for you to call my dad. I think he can tell you stories.”
Dave Kjerstad didn’t seem to be surprised by the phone call.
“We’ve told our kids the stories about how we got here,” Dave Kjerstad said. “They know about South Dakota, cattle farming. We started the business here 28 years ago and it’s a little different. It’s bottled water and iced tea, all out of a retail store.”
It’s worth a trip to the website (Waterstill.com) to understand what the Kjerstads have done in Amarillo. There are now two locations.
Heston loved telling the story.
“The whole family works in the business,” he said. “I love it.”
Dave Kjerstad is glad Heston and the other four children enjoy it.
“They didn’t have a choice,” Dave said. “They had to participate.
“Because of the business it worked out where we could travel for baseball for Heston. There were a lot of trips to Dallas. We’d just drive them together. It was about then that he was learning to drive. Dallas is a good place to teach a 16-year-old to drive.”
“Well, maybe not to start, but in time,” Dave said. “I did finally get to where I’d trust him enough on those trips to try to sleep. We commuted for a lot of summer weekends the last three years. That’s a six-hour drive. We did some miles. We maintained a routine. I’d say it was a good experience traveling together.”
There were some times that it looked like Heston was “playing up” in age groups.
“Well, he looked like he was 14 when he was 16,” Dave said. “Now, he looks like he’s 16.”
Sometimes he did play “up” in age groups.
“I didn’t play baseball,” Dave said. “Heston’s older brothers did and I think he was about 3 when he started trying to play with them. He hung out with the older groups and it seemed to come easy.
“What I saw was that he obsessed with baseball. He just enjoyed it so much. I never told him to play. Never told him to practice. I just felt that it should be their passion and it should be their idea. It was for him with baseball.”
You see it in Heston Kjerstad’s blue eyes. Yes, the background is Norwegian.
“South Dakota is where so many from Norway settled,” Dave Kjerstad said. “You could get a plot of land and call it your own. It was a rough life. I still say that South Dakota should have been left for the buffalo. It takes a lot of work to care for the cattle there.”
Heston is quick to point out the last name is Norwegian.
“I tell everyone that in Norway, the j is silent,” he said. “Now, I have no idea where Heston came from. I’ve asked my parents. I don’t know that I ever got a good answer.”
Dave Kjerstad was ready when it came up.
“His name came from two places,” he said. “There’s a great old farm implement company, Hesston hay equipment. Then, there was Charleton Heston. That’s as good as I can give you.”
It’s like Heston Kjerstad, plenty good enough so far.
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