A year ago Saturday, Chris Heston threw a 7 1/3 -inning, four-hit shutout against the Atlanta Braves, but it would get better for him.
On June 9, the right-hander out of Palm Bay, Fla., and East Carolina University threw a no-hitter in New York against the Mets and became the king of San Francisco.
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Fast forward to Heston’s last start, Thursday night in Sacramento, when he pitched six shutout innings for the River Cats for his first victory of the Triple-A season.
Why he’s pitching in Sacramento is newsworthy, given that he won 12 games in the majors last year and was the Giants’ second-most successful starting pitcher behind Madison Bumgarner.
The Giants’ offseason signings of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija pushed Heston down in this year’s rotation, and the physical recoveries of Matt Cain and Jake Peavy pushed him out.
Relegated to a long-man’s role, Heston in April allowed three times the number of hits and walks (15) than the number of innings he pitched (five). So the Giants sent him back to Sacramento, where the spring weather is nicer and where not as many people watch while you try to find what it is you lost.
Here in the minors, Heston sputtered for more than a month without a win. His ERA rose to 4.94, which isn’t half as bad as the 10.80 he had in San Francisco but still was evidence that what Heston lost was still missing.
He turned in a decent performance May 20 in Nashville, but it wasn’t until Thursday night at Raley Field against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox that Heston felt anything like the half-million bucks he is making on the Giants’ payroll this year.
“Anytime you go out there and throw up some zeroes and get a win, it’s always a good night,” Heston said.
Now the trick for Heston is replication. Do it again in scheduled starts Tuesday in El Paso, Texas, June 5 at home against Albuquerque and June 11 back in El Paso and the Giants will have some decisions to make about bringing him back.
“That’s the goal,” Heston, 28, said. “That’s the goal for everybody here. Hopefully, that’ll be in the cards this year. I’ve just got to take care of what I can take care of here.”
With 13 wins in their last 14 games and a 4 1/2 -game lead in the National League West entering Friday’s game in Colorado, the Giants won’t be in a rush. Nobody’s moving out of the top three spots in the rotation, and now it looks as if the other two are shoring up.
Going into Friday’s start against the Rockies, Matt Cain had shaved nearly 2.5 points off his ERA. Jake Peavy also looked revived Wednesday with his best outing in weeks. Maybe it was because he spent a few moments during the week in the clutches of Jerry Garcia’s guitar, as reported Tuesday by JamBase.com.
Heston, too, appears back in form. Unfortunately, major-league teams don’t have six-man rotations, so probably the best Heston can do is break into the Giants’ bullpen, unless one of the starters is injured. .
River Cats catcher Andrew Susac, who knows what it takes to get guys out in the big leagues after spending parts of the last two seasons with the Giants, noted good movement and a sharp downward angle on Heston’s pitches Thursday. Susac also liked Heston’s aggressiveness that led to six strikeouts, as well as his ability to stay calm when he bought trouble by walking four.
“He belongs up there,” Susac said of Heston and the major leagues. “I know Chris feels the same way. I know he’s confident that he’s going to get a job up there. He’s a competitor, and that’s why you love catching guys like that. I think he could go up right now and be successful.”
River Cats manager Jose Alguacil sees a return of Heston’s command, especially with the sinker. The skipper also liked that Heston stayed cool in the face of Colorado threats. He said Heston needs to remember that he’s good.
“He was a guy that last year pitched a no-hitter,” Alguacil said. “He did a tremendous job for the Giants.”
Alguacil expressed confidence that Heston will find his, in its totality.
“There is no doubt in my mind he will get back to the big leagues,” Alguacil said.
Heston knows what he must do – throw strikes, command all of his pitches in any count, get batters to hit the ball into the dirt. Get in a groove. Get on a roll.
It shouldn’t be too hard for Heston to believe in himself. Everybody around him sure does.