Names like Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong are household names to San Francisco fans. But if you asked Giant fans if they knew who Chris Heston was before he made his first start of the season on Wednesday, April 8 against Arizona, a small contingent of avid fans would say yes, a slightly larger group would say they vaguely recalled his name while the largest group of all would probably have no idea who he was.
Most casual fans don’t know Heston’s name because he pitches in an era that is enamored with radar gun readings and strikeouts, neither of which he is going to impress anyone with. Instead, Heston is trying to buck the recent trend, relying on movement and his defense to record outs, which he has done masterfully in his first two outings of the season.
If Heston doesn’t have the fans attention after picking up his first career victory over Arizona, then undoubtedly he has garnered their praise after starting the Giants’ home opener on Monday, April 13 against Colorado as the 27-year-old former 12th-round pick out of East Carolina University put together his second-straight start to begin the season. But his rise to notoriety didn’t come without some trials and tribulations along the way.
Heston entered spring training with little chance to make the Giants’ Opening Day roster. San Francisco already had seven pitchers, all with years of starting experience in the major leagues at their disposal to fill the five-man rotation, headlined by Bumgarner the hero of the Giants World Series title run.
But, as the opening series against the Arizona approached the reigning World Series champs were dealt some difficult news. Jake Peavy, who was scheduled to start game two against the Diamondbacks, suffered back stiffness and was scratched from his start, opening the way for Vogelsong. San Francisco was also looking for a pitcher to start game three as Cain was diagnosed with a flexor tendon strain in his right arm, which resulted in the veteran being placed on the 15-day disabled list.
Manager Bruce Bochy then had a decision to make. He could call on Yusmiero Petit to start in Cain’s place, but in doing so he would lose one of his most valuable bullpen arms. Bochy could also move Lincecum’s start up two days. Instead, he and the San Francisco staff decided to call-up Heston, who had just three prior appearances at the Major League level during 2014, including just one start.
Some may wonder why the Giants tabbed Heston for the spot start, especially since he had never pitched at the Major League level until the end of the 2014 season, making three appearances, including one start on the final day of the regular season. Also, Peavy made his next start against the Padres, making an established pitcher like Vogelsong a viable option to take Cain’s place in the rotation. But instead, Bochy opted for Heston, who had a solid spring training performance in which he showcased improved velocity and movement while allowing five runs (four) earned on 10 hits, striking out 10 and walking one in 15 innings of work. Heston’s work during spring put the right-hander back into San Francisco’s future plans, something that was in question just a short time ago.
“He threw great, good movement on his fastball, went in and out with it, good breaking ball, changeup,” said Bochy during spring training when asked what he liked about Heston.
Just two years ago, Heston was an up-and-coming prospect within the San Francisco organization despite lacking the stuff that frontline starters usually posses. The right-hander was throwing his sinking-fastball between 88-89 MPH, touching 92 MPH on rare occasions, while also using a curveball, slider and changeup to record outs.
He jumped onto the Giants’ prospect map after back-to-back brilliant campaigns during 2011 and 2012.
While pitching for High-A San Jose during 2011, Heston compiled a 12-4 record with a 3.16 ERA, which is very good for the hitter-friendly California League. He tallied 131 strikeouts in 151 innings of work while allowing just 144 hits.
Heston followed up his 2011 mark with a promotion to Double-A Richmond in the Eastern League. He made 25 starts, posting an impressive 2.24 ERA while compiling a 9-8 record. He recorded 135 strikeouts in 148.2 innings of work.
It appeared that Heston was rising through the system quickly, another pitching talent groomed by the San Francisco organization to join the likes of Bumgarner, Cain and Lincecum. But things started to change during the 2013 season after Heston was promoted to Triple-A Fresno.
Working with the same stuff that made him successful the previous two years, Heston found things a little more difficult against Triple-A batters. He struggled over the course of 19 starts, recording a 5.80 ERA. During his 108.2 innings of work, Heston allowed 129 hits, including 14 home runs, a number too high for a sinker-ball pitcher. He did manage to tally 97 strikeouts, which showed that he did have an ability to put hitters away.
Following 2013, Heston’s star was fading within the San Francisco organization. The only way he could recapture his once-promising-future was to have a bounce-back season, which he did.
Heston made an impressive 28 starts for Fresno during 2014, posting a 12-9 record while allowing an ERA of 3.38. He worked 173 innings, allowing just 152 hits while striking out 125. Heston’s efforts were enough to earn a September call-up, which he used to make three appearances, including one start.
At the conclusion of the 2014 season, the San Francisco coaching staff wanted Heston to add some muscle to his 6-foot-3 frame. Now, after an offseason devoted to getting stronger and adding approximately 25 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame, Heston is using a hard-sinking fastball that sits 89-91 MPH and touches 93 MPH on occasions to get hitters out at the Major League level. He has also worked on throwing his secondary pitches with more consistency, which has allowed him to command the strike zone better.
While early in the regular season, it is becoming more apparent why Heston was called up and why he may just stick in the San Francisco rotation.
He has allowed just four runs (one earned) over the course of two quality starts. During his 13 innings of work, Heston has allowed 10 hits while striking out 10 and walking four.
The 27-year-old does not seemed fazed by the moment, shaking off a rough start to his 2015 debut against Arizona where he threw wildly on a pickoff attempt and spiked a pitch extremely short of home plate. Heston rebounded and put together a quality start, giving up two unearned runs on three hits while striking out five and walking two.
Heston’s performance against the Diamondbacks earned him his first career win and another start for the Giants, this time he would start the home opener as San Francisco celebrated their third World Series title in the last five years. It would have been hard to expect the rookie right-hander to duplicate his performance against Arizona, but in many ways he bettered in on Monday, April 13 against the Colorado Rockies.
In front of a sold-out, raucous crowd, Heston calmly took the mound and worked with surgical precision against one of the most dangerous lineups in the National League until the top of the fourth inning when the Rockies finally broke through.
Charlie Blackmon, who recorded two hits against Heston, started the inning with a single and moved to second on Carlos Gonzalez’s ground out. Perennial All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki singled Blackmon home with the first run of the game, which also was the first earned run allowed by the rookie.
He kept the Rockies off the board until the top of the seventh when Colorado was able to scratch across a run after two outs.
Nick Hundley doubled to left and D.J. LeMahieu followed with a single to put runners on the corners with two outs. Heston then uncorked a pitch that catcher Buster Posey mishandled for a passed ball, as Hundley raced home, Posey made a solid throw to Heston covering home. But Heston was unable to hold on to the throw as Hundley slid into home with the second run of the game.
Colorado would win 2-0, giving Heston his first career loss.
Despite the loss, Heston is enjoying his time pitching in the Major Leagues.
“Any time you’re out there, you should be having fun,” he said following the Colorado game. “It was a blast.”
Heston’s back-to-back strong performances have been a blessing to a San Francisco team that has suffered several early injuries. Because of these performances, Heston has earned a chance to stay in the starting rotation, something that Bochy will need to decide on when Cain is deemed healthy and ready to come off of the disabled list. Until then, Heston will be ready to perform.