SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Chris Heston’s goal wasn’t to match Ian Kennedy, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ opening-day starter and staff ace.
Besides, it’s hard to equal a guy when he’s recording four outs an inning.
“Yeah, he was really pounding the zone,” said Heston, after pitching for the Giants against Kennedy in a minor league B game at Salt River Fields Sunday morning.
The rules are lax on the back fields. Kennedy was so efficient that he stayed on the mound to face an extra batter after recording his three outs in the second and third innings. All told, a lineup that included Gary Brown, Ricky Oropesa, Brock Bond, Roger Kieschnick and other prospects went 1 for 16 in four innings against Kennedy. (Oropesa had the only hit, a single.)
But Heston was pretty tidy, too.
The right-hander from Florida made the most of his chance in front of Giants manager Bruce Bochy, GM Brian Sabean and a good chunk of the baseball ops inner circle. He kept his four-pitch mix around the zone while striking out four in three shutout innings.
Then he went to the bullpen to continue building his pitch count after completing three innings and turning the game over to left-hander Mike Kickham, another pitching prospect that has a good chance to arrive in the big leagues this season.
Heston and Kickham are expected to be the first line of defense should the Giants need a replacement in the rotation, Bochy confirmed.
“That’s the plan,” Bochy said. “You need depth in your rotation. These are two guys we think a lot of. Hopefully they continue their progress and if they’re needed at some point, they’ll be ready.
Both pitchers are ticketed for Triple-A Fresno, but Heston has an advantage to get the call first because he’s already on the 40-man roster. The Giants purchased his contract over the winter to protect him from being snagged in the Rule 5 draft.
Heston, who will turn 25 next month, was a 12th-rounder in 2009 out of East Carolina University and his stuff won’t make scouts salivate. But he led his league in ERA each of the past two seasons (3.16 for Single-A San Jose in 2011 and 2.24 for Double-A Richmond last year), and has such a knack for getting ground-ball outs in key spots that Richmond announcer Jon Laaser nicknamed him “Hesto Presto.”
Laaser even went so far as to digitally insert a wizard’s hat and a wand into a photograph of Heston for the cover of a game program.
“He took it and ran with it, didn’t he?” Heston said, smiling.
There’s more skill than magic at work on the mound for Heston, who has a clean, easy delivery and has plus command of a 72-74 mph curve to go along with a fastball that sits in the 88-90 mph range.
He credited his first pro pitching coach, Steve Kline at Low-A Augusta, with understanding to trust his stuff.
“Kept the ball down and let the sinker work,” Heston said. “I’ve always been a guy who tried to fill the strike zone up. He told me to rely on sink to get a ground ball, and it really helped.”
Kline also helped Heston learn shortcuts to stay on top of the ball when he starts to get out of whack during a game. They’re adjustments he can make from pitch to pitch.
And, because this is Steve Kline we’re talking about…
“Oh you’ll get a naked bear hug from Kliner,” Heston said, smiling. “But he taught me a lot about pro ball and I owe a lot to him.
In terms of prospect value, Kickham, who turned 24 in December, ranks higher because of a fastball that was 89-93 mph on Sunday but has crackled in the 95-96 range. He has a plus breaking ball and is also coming off a solid season at Richmond, but he runs deeper counts and will have to improve his command as he faces more patient hitters above Double-A.
Kickham gave up a run in two innings but I talked to a scout who graded him as a solid mid-rotation starter. The Giants would like to give him a full year of seasoning, and if the rotation is healthy, they’ll get that chance.
Matt Cain said he has watched Heston play catch and noticed the right-hander “has a real rubber arm and just looks so smooth and easy.” Mostly, though, Cain was impressed that both young pitchers have asked him questions about his routine, and appear eager to learn.
Cain said he did the same thing as a pup, especially when Matt Morris was around.
“You learn by asking the older guy,” said Cain, 28. “I guess I’m the older guy.”
Gary Brown was 0 for 2 with two ground outs to shortstop against Kennedy. The Giants rallied for a 2-1 victory in the six-inning game, though, when Josh Booty – the former LSU quarterback who is in Arizona’s camp after winning a knuckleball competition – allowed a pair of runs on two walks, a passed ball, a wild pitch and an RBI ground out.