Heston's improbable no-no still a 'foggy dream'

November 26th, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO -- Even now, four years later, the gravity of the accomplishment hasn’t quite sunk in for .

On June 9, 2015, in his 13th career Major League start, Heston threw the 17th no-hitter in Giants history in a 5-0 win over the Mets at Citi Field. It marked the fourth consecutive season in which a Giants pitcher had thrown a no-hitter, following Matt Cain (2012) and Tim Lincecum (2013, ‘14), but Heston’s gem continues to stand as perhaps the most improbable.

Two years earlier, Heston had been designated for assignment by the Giants. His career up to that point had largely been marked by stretches of inconsistency. He was left off the Opening Day roster that spring, though the Giants ended up promoting him from Triple-A Sacramento in April to fill in for the injured Cain. His opposing starter that night was Noah Syndergaard, one of the league’s most hyped pitching prospects who boasted a sizzling fastball capable of reaching triple-digits.

Heston rarely threw a pitch that exceeded 90 mph, yet the then-27-year-old baffled the Mets on one of the biggest stages in baseball, becoming the first Giants rookie to throw a no-hitter since 1912.

When he looks back now, the memories don’t seem entirely rooted in reality.

“I think it still hasn’t really set in,” Heston said recently. “It’s still kind of a foggy dream, in a sense. It was a while back, but thinking back on it, it’s something you dream of doing. You never really think you’ll have the opportunity to do it. I still haven’t kind of put it in perspective.”

A 12th-round Draft pick out of East Carolina University in 2009, Heston had been an unheralded prospect as he climbed the rungs of the Giants’ farm system. In July 2013, he was designated for assignment to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Jeff Francoeur after logging a 5.80 ERA in his first 19 starts at Triple-A Sacramento. Heston was subsequently released, though he re-signed with the Giants and made his Major League debut the following year, posting a 5.06 ERA in three appearances as a September call-up.

Heston earned an invitation to big-league camp in the spring of 2015 and impressed the Giants by going 1-0 with a 2.40 ERA, 10 strikeouts and one walk over 15 innings. He caught the eye of fellow Palm Bay, Fla., native and then-manager Bruce Bochy by firing three shutout innings against the Royals, holding them to one hit while striking out five.

“He just had a natural power sinker, low 90s,” Bochy said. “It was a ground-ball pitch that hitters couldn't get in the air. And then he had that really good curveball. He could throw a slider and a changeup, too. There was a game down in Surprise, [Ariz.], against Kansas City that opened all our eyes. He pitched so well. He looked so determined to make the club. I just saw a different guy that day. And from that point on the rest of the year, that's the guy that we saw every time he went out on the mound.”

Heston was among the Giants’ final cuts that spring and opened the regular season at Triple-A, but his stay in Sacramento proved brief. After Cain went down with a flexor tendon strain in his right elbow, Heston was summoned to pitch the club’s third game of the year in Arizona and allowed only two unearned runs over six innings to earn his first Major League victory.

Heston solidified his spot in the Giants’ rotation over the ensuing weeks, though he hit a rough patch in May, when he recorded a 7.71 ERA over 18 2/3 innings in four starts before his no-hitter. But Heston clearly returned to form against the Mets, using his sinker to induce ground balls and maintain an efficient pitch count. The lone blemishes were three hit batters, as Heston walked none and struck out 11 in the 110-pitch effort.

Heston said he began to feel like the no-hitter was within reach in the eighth inning, when he was due to face the heart of the Mets’ order.

“I kind of told myself, ‘If I can screech through that part of that lineup and not give up a hit, then I had a real chance to do it,’” Heston recalled. “That was basically the only thought. Other than that, I tried not to think about it too much because I didn’t want to jinx myself.”

Sure enough, the hardest-hit ball of the night came off the bat of Eric Campbell with two outs in the eighth. Shortstop Brandon Crawford made a nice backhanded stop and threw to first base to keep Heston’s no-hit bid alive.

“When he's on, he's one of the best pitchers that I've played behind,” Crawford said afterward.

Heston flashed some nerves after hitting Anthony Recker on the left shoulder to open the ninth, but he quickly regained his composure and proceeded to strike out the next three batters on 11 pitches to cap his historic performance. After Rubén Tejada was rung up on a called third strike for the final out of the game, Heston immediately clapped his hands together and embraced catcher Buster Posey.

“Afterward, we were going, ‘Wow,’” Bochy said. “Because throwing a no-hitter, I mean, that's an incredible feat. For him that early in his career to do that, that’s pretty impressive.”

Heston’s achievement was made even sweeter by the fact that he was able to share it with his future wife, Ashley, and Brad Thomsen, who coached him from Palm Bay West Little League to Bayside High School. Thomsen traveled to Citi Field from Florida and had never seen Heston pitch in the Majors before that night.

“That’s something you kind of dream about doing as a little kid in the backyard,” Heston said. “To actually even be put in the position to have the opportunity to do it was a blessing, and then to actually be able to get it done and experience it with everybody I was able to experience it with, it was a dream come true.”

Heston finished the 2015 season with a 3.95 ERA over 177 2/3 innings, but his tenure with the Giants soon came to an abrupt end. He made the team out of Spring Training as a reliever in 2016, but he was demoted to Triple-A Sacramento after recording a 10.80 ERA over four appearances.

He has not thrown another pitch for the Giants since. Heston spent the rest of the season in the Minors before being traded to the Mariners.

“It was kind of a shock to see kind of the business side of the baseball world,” Heston said. “It was all I knew. It was home. There was that comfort level. And having that taken away, that was kind of a shock.”

Heston pitched in two games for the Mariners before being claimed by the Dodgers, then the Twins. He was hampered by a right shoulder impingement in 2017 and made only one relief appearance for Minnesota in which he worked one scoreless inning -- against the Giants.

When the Twins released him, Heston expressed a desire to return to the Giants and signed a Minor League deal in January 2018. But he once again struggled with injuries and was let go after appearing in nine Minor League games across three levels.

Now 31, Heston did not pitch professionally this past season for the first time since 2009. He has not appeared in a Major League game since June 11, 2017, and while he admits that retirement has crossed his mind, he’s not ready to hang up his spikes quite yet.

Heston underwent major surgery in June to repair the labrum, rotator cuff and biceps tendon in his right shoulder and is currently in the process of rehabbing his arm. While being away from baseball this year has allowed him to spend more time with his young son, Charlie, Heston plans to hold showcases for teams next year once he’s healthy.

“I had some pretty extensive work done,” Heston said. “I do plan on trying to still play.”

Heston still has many keepsakes from his no-hitter, including his jersey and a signed lineup card, both of which are currently displayed in his office in Viera, Fla. They’re tangible reminders of a night that still doesn’t feel quite real, but Heston hopes he’ll have the opportunity to add to his legacy in the future.

“There was a time there when I thought about just kind of walking away,” Heston said. “But a lot of close friends and family kind of put it in my head, ‘You’re still young. You’re going to need a good shoulder regardless, so you might as well get the surgery done and see what comes after that.’ That’s kind of the idea I’m taking with it. I needed it done anyway, so I’m going to get ready to play baseball if the opportunity presents itself. But if not, I got a healthy shoulder now.”