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Orioles first-round draft pick DJ Stewart shows good patience in professional debut

Orioles first-round draft pick DJ Stewart on his professional debut for the Aberdeen Ironbirds, "Tonight, got back into game shape a little bit,” Stewart said. “Still not all the way there, but every day, I'll get better." (Kevin Richardson)

Orioles first-round draft pick DJ Stewart strolled toward the batter's box with two outs in the first inning Thursday night at short-season Single-A Aberdeen as rapper Lil Wayne's “Go DJ” echoed throughout Ripken Stadium.

He kissed his bat three times and tapped his left foot and then his right with his bat before digging in with a low squat for the first at-bat of his professional career.

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“I'm a very superstitious person,” Stewart said. “I haven't really changed anything that I've done since I was about 12 years old. I do the same kind of routine.”

He watched two straight pitches, both strikes, before fouling off a pitch into the dirt. Staten Island right-hander Yoel Espinal missed on his next two pitches.

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Then Espinal came inside with a fastball that Stewart got his hands around and pulled past a diving first baseman for a single to right field.

The 25th overall pick finished the night 1-for-3, showing a keen eye for the strike zone in the IronBirds' 2-1 loss to the New York Yankees affiliate.

"Sometimes you see young players, first game, get excited, and they swing at everything," Aberdeen manager Luis Pujols said. "You can see that he has patience and he got a good eye."

The Florida State product's plate discipline is one of the reasons he was highly regarded coming out of college. In his junior year with the Seminoles, he drew 69 walks, 12 more than the next-best player in Division I.

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Stewart drew a walk Thursday and forced a full count in two of his four plate appearances. In total, he saw 22 pitches.

He was a leadoff hitter growing up, and his parents and coaches stressed the importance of seeing a lot of pitches. They told him to make the pitcher get him out.

“That's just something that I pride myself on,” Stewart said. “If I get to a full count, I consider that a great at-bat. I was fortunate enough to do that tonight.”

Thursday was Stewart's first game since June 6, when Florida State's season ended with an 11-4 loss to Florida in an NCAA super regional. Although the Orioles selected him June 8, he wasn't eligible to play until he officially signed with the organization Sunday.

The 6-foot, 230-pound Stewart watched a couple of close pitches in his second at-bat to force his first full count of the night. This time, though, Espinal prevailed, as Stewart swung over a fastball on the outside part of the plate.

In the fifth inning, Stewart, 21, drew his first professional walk. After fouling a pitch off to bring the count to 2-2, Stewart laid off back-to-back balls and trotted down to first base.

In his fourth at-bat, Stewart hit a 1-1 pitch back to right-hander Sean Carley, who threw him out at first.

While many scouts praise Stewart's bat, there are doubts about his ability in the outfield.

He doesn't have a strong arm and might have to move to first base in the organization's higher levels.

During nine innings in left field, Stewart wasn't given much of a chance to showcase his defensive abilities. Aside from catching a couple of lazy fly balls and fielding a grounder that snuck into the outfield, Stewart stood still most of the night.

He received the loudest cheer when he was announced as the No. 3 hitter in the lineup.

It was a special night for IronBirds fans such as John Moffa, who has had season tickets since the team moved to Ripken Stadium in 2002 and said he watched future Orioles such as Manny Machado, Nick Markakis and Caleb Joseph get their start at Aberdeen.

There's hope that Stewart could make a similar impact. In his third season with the Seminoles, Stewart led the offense with a .318 batting average and 62 runs. His walk rate helped boost his on-base percentage to .500.

While the 2014 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year hit well in all three seasons at Florida State, he had a power surge as a junior. After a combined 12 home runs over his first two years, Stewart hit a career-high 15 this past season, including one in each of his last two games with the Seminoles.

His power was on display during batting practice before Thursday's game. About three hours before the first pitch, Stewart hit pitch after pitch toward the gap in right-center.

While teammates' fly balls landed short of the fence, three of Stewart's drives to right field cleared the wall.

It's the type of hitting the Orioles hope he one day can bring to Camden Yards.

“Tonight, got back into game shape a little bit,” Stewart said. “Still not all the way there, but every day, I'll get better, and it won't take me long at all.”

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