Before Sunday’s game, Giants manager Bruce Bochy said Tim Hudson will rejoin the starting rotation after the All-Star break but did not reveal which current starter will cede his spot to Hudson. Suffice to say, however, that Chris Heston’s job is safe.
Heston, a 27-year-old rookie right-hander, concluded his breakout first half by holding the Philadelphia Phillies to one run while pitching into the seventh inning of the Giants’ 4-2 win at AT&T Park. For a Giants team that played most of the first half without Matt Cain and Jake Peavy, who were expected to help anchor the rotation, the emergence of Heston as a reliable and occasionally brilliant starter has been one of the season’s more crucial developments.
“He’s been a savior,” Bochy said about Heston following Sunday’s win, which capped a three-game sweep of the Phillies. “That’s pretty much it. You lose Cain, lose Peavy, you need somebody from your system to hopefully step up and help you out.
“In order for a team to have a good year and get to where they want to go, you have to have a surprise or two. And he certainly has been more than that.”
Heston did not make the Giants’ Opening Day roster and expected to start the season with the River Cats, a plan that changed after an elbow strain sent Cain to the disabled list before he made a start. In 18 starts for the Giants, Heston has compiled a 9-5 record and 3.39 ERA while logging 111 2/3 innings, second-most on the team behind Madison Bumgarner, and authored the majors’ first no-hitter this season in New York against the Mets on June 9.
Asked Sunday where the Giants would be entering the break without Heston, catcher Buster Posey exhaled and said: “Wouldn’t be where we are, that’s for sure.”
“He’s been a guy who’s been able to pitch deep into games for us,” Posey said. “Even (Sunday), he came out at 6 2/3 (innings), but he was only at (78) pitches. His efficiency has been extremely good, and I think the pace at which he works allows us to get into a rhythm offensively.”
Indeed, Heston entered Sunday averaging the third-highest run support among National League starters this season, with the Giants scoring an average of 5.66 runs in his starts. Heston, though, has made the most of that support. For comparison, his ERA entering the break is just a tick higher than the 3.33 mark owned by Bumgarner, who is headed to the All-Star Game, and both are 9-5.
“Crazy,” Heston said with a grin. “I’ve got to credit him with that ’cause it’s that friendly team rivalry. He keeps me going, gives me a guy to chase after. I think that helps a lot.”
Heston rarely overpowers hitters but, as he did Sunday against the Phillies, uses a sinker to generate weak contact and a lot of ground balls. Heston allowed baserunners in each of the first four innings but dodged trouble by inducing three double plays. Beginning in the fifth, he struck out five of the next eight batters he faced.
Andrew Susac (Jesuit High School), who caught Heston on Sunday, said the right-hander’s sinker was “giving guys fits,” so they relied primarily on that pitch the first time through the Phillies’ lineup. The second time through, they started mixing in more off-speed pitches.
“You started to dump that in, and that’s when you see guys start to swing at pitches that maybe they don’t want to swing at,” Susac said.
Susac also contributed the key hit of the game, a three-run run home run with two outs in the fourth inning that gave the Giants a 4-0 lead. It was Susac’s third homer of the season and just his third hit in 28 at-bats, though he said afterward, “As far as needing it – I wouldn’t say I was that desperate yet.”
By sweeping the MLB-worst Phillies, the Giants concluded a streaky first half with a 46-43 record. They had an eight-game winning streak in May and two streaks of five straight wins, but also lost seven or more in a row twice, including a stretch ending last Monday that dropped their record to .500 for the first time since mid-May.
At that point, Bochy said it was imperative for the Giants to play better for the final week of the first half and build momentum entering the break. Sunday afternoon, he felt that challenge had been met.
“That’s what we wanted to do, finish up on a good note,” Bochy said. “You look at what we’ve been through, between injuries, schedule – not to make excuses. It’s been an OK first half, and I’ll take it, to be honest.”