SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants returned home to AT&T Park on Thursday following a week-long road trip and, behind right-hander Chris Heston, picked up exactly where they left off.
Heston threw seven scoreless innings in the Giants’ 7-0 win over the Atlanta Braves that marked their ninth shutout of the season and eighth at home. Eight of the shutouts have come in the Giants’ last 12 games, including four in a row at AT&T Park. Giant pitchers have not allowed a run at home in 37 innings, matching the longest such stretch at home since the team moved to San Francisco (also June 14-28, 2012).
“I honestly didn’t even realize we had a streak like that going,” Heston said afterward. “I’m just trying to put up as many zeroes as possible.”
He needed them Thursday to match Braves starter Shelby Miller through six innings, as both kept a lively pace while scattering three hits to that point. But Miller blinked in the seventh -- or rather, watched wide-eyed in astonishment as Brandon Belt’s high, opposite field fly ball carried through a misty night and over the left-field wall for the tie-breaking home run. With Miller out of the game, the Giants tacked on with a six-run eighth.
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Heston did not return after Belt’s homer, departing at 92 pitches and with his ERA down to 3.82. At home, it’s a skimpy 2.16 in five starts -- compared to 5.79 in five road outings including Heston’s last start in Colorado, in which he allowed six runs on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings.
“What’s impressive about this kid is he’s had a couple outings that haven’t gone so well, but he’s bounced back,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’s been able to put those games behind him and come back.”
Coming back to the pitcher-friendly environs of AT&T, Heston acknowledged, helps.
“You’ve got to be able to attack the zone, and here you have that comfort zone where you know you can throw strikes in hitters’ counts and let your defense work,” Heston said.
“Nothing changes (with his approach), I just try to throw as many strikes as possible, and here you might get away with a couple more than you would other places.”
Heston has been a savior for the Giants and their injury-depleted rotation for the season’s first two months, but that role comes with a flipside. Jake Peavy could be two rehab starts from returning from a back injury, and the Giants are still hoping to have Matt Cain back for a second-half push. And Heston, who still has options, could find himself the odd man out in the rotation when the veterans return.
Though a rookie, Heston isn’t naïve, but he said he’s trying to ignore those circumstances for the time being.
“You try not to let that stuff enter your mind, as hard as it is knowing these guys are close to coming back,” Heston said. “And these guys are good, so it’ll just help out when they get back. You try not to think about how it affects you -- you just want these guys to get healthy and get back.”
For now, Bochy said Heston has “done a nice job filling in” -- and in terms of the staff’s current scoreless streak, falling in with the trend on Thursday night.
* Belt’s seventh-inning homer was his sixth of the season, all of which have come in his last 13 games. It’s one thing to hit them at Cincinnati’s little Great American Ballpark (where Belt had three in three games) or in the lofty air of Coors Field (where he hit one). It’s another to homer to the opposite field on a cold night at AT&T Park, particularly on a fly ball as high as Belt’s.
“He’s strong,” Bochy said. “It says a lot about his power … I didn’t know if that ball was going out, but it went out by a ways, too.”
Miller supplied some of the power with a 96 mile per hour fastball. Belt said he “thought it had a chance” off the bat -- “The only thing I was thinking was, I didn’t know if it was too high.”
Belt also doubled into the left-center field gap during the six-run eighth inning on ball he said he hit almost as well as the home run. Both were good signs for Belt, who perked his average back up to .305.
“That was kind of the plan coming into the season,” he said, “just remembering what I’ve been successful with in the past, and part of it was going the other way in those gaps.”
* Bochy said before the game that he didn’t expect the Giants to continue scoring runs at home like they did on their trip to Colorado and Milwaukee. The offense then scored the most runs it has compiled in a home game this season.
The eighth-inning rally started quietly with a Matt Duffy walk, Gregor Blanco infield hit and a bunt that Nori Aoki beat out for a single to load the bases. Then Joe Panik drove in two with a double to right field and Hunter Pence lined a triple into gap in right-center to make it 5-0. Pence scored on a wild pitch and back-to-back doubles by Belt and Brandon Crawford capped the scoring.
Bochy said he thought Aoki’s bunt was “huge,” and added that: “Right now we’re getting contributions throughout the lineup.” After scoring the third-fewest runs in the majors in April (66), the Giants are tied for the most runs (139) in May with the Texas Rangers.
“I think it’s probably what we thought it could be from the very get-go,” Belt said. “Got a lot of good hitters on this team, a lot of guys that know how to get on base, and when you do that you can score a lot of runs. It seems like it’s all coming together now.”
* On a related note, the Giants won their majors-leading 20th game in May and have won 12 of their last 14 games, the best record in baseball since May 15. Their 29 wins overall are, as of Thursday night, also one more than the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were idle on Thursday and now lead the N.L. West by a half-game.
Game two of the series has Tim Hudson (2-4, 5.04) starting against his former team and right-hander Mike Foltynewicz (3-1, 4.25). Thursday afternoon, Hudson reflected some about his time with the Braves, saying he felt fortunate to have pitched nine seasons for his hometown team. Asked his favorite memory of his time in Atlanta, Hudson pointed to being a part of longtime manager Bobby Cox’s final season in 2010.
“It was really cool to see how everybody in baseball respected him and appreciated what he brought to the game,” Hudson said. “You rarely get to play with or for somebody who has that kind of impact.”
An illustration of that came in Cox’s final game, when the Giants eliminated the Braves from the 2010 N.L. Division Series. In the wake of the final out, the Giants paused their on-field celebration to clap towards the Braves dugout and Cox.
“It’s something that obviously playing here now, I understand how and why they would do something like that, just because that’s the kind of organization this is,” Hudson said. “I know as a player for the Braves at the time, it was obviously something that we really appreciated as a team. It was a classy move.”