SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco Giants have the beginnings of a nice problem on their hands. Chris Heston provided a reminder that there's little need to rush back rehabbing veterans Jake Peavy or Matt Cain, after he matched Atlanta Braves breakout hurler Shelby Miller frame for frame on a chilly night at AT&T Park. Heston blanked the Braves into the eighth inning and notched his fifth win of the year. Not too shabby for a guy who might have initially been pegged as the Giants' seventh or eighth option for the rotation.
Thursday's 7-0 victory marked Heston's sixth quality start in 10 turns. He earned a Game Score of 75 and it was a nice return to the standard set by his complete-game victory in Houston over the Astros on May 12. He was hit hard in between these two starts during subsequent turns in hitters' parks at Cincinnati and Colorado. After Peavy made a rehab start in Sacramento on Wednesday, the matchup with Miller was a quick test to see whether the Giants had to worry about how much longer they might stick with Heston.
Asked about the benefit of returning to AT&T's offense-dampening environment, Heston stressed that he wasn't adapting his approach to his environment.
"I don't think there's any difference. You've got to be able to attack the zone, and here [at AT&T Park] you have the comfort zone where you know you can throw strikes in hitters' counts and let your defense work," Heston said. "Nothing changes, I just try to throw as many strikes as possible. Here, you might be able to get away with a couple more than you would in some other places. But the game plan never changes, it's all about throwing strikes at the bottom of the zone."
Heston went three full times through the Braves' lineup, but was especially strong the first time through, striking out four. His third time through the order he added two more called strikes to finish with six, against five baserunners. That was especially welcome considering that, before this start, Heston's OPS his second and third times facing opponents jumped 100 points to around .800 after a .699 the first time through.
"That's the big thing, once I get through the order a couple of times, that second, third time around I tend to struggle with," Heston said. "So to be able to stay in the groove there and get through the third time around was big."
A 12th-round pick in the 2009 draft, Heston is a prototypical organizational soldier. He has bounced on and off the 40-man roster, designated for assignment, released and re-signed in July 2013, and earned a repurchase last September after a strong bounce-back second season at Fresno. He's also another indication that the Giants' farm system, not often touted for its talent, can surprise you. To be able to summon up an above-average alternative to round out the rotation after being down two starters, is a hallmark of the depth that gets teams through the six-month slog of the season.
"What's impressive about this kid is that he's had a couple outings that haven't gone so well, but he's bounced back and been able to put those games behind him and throw the ball well," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said postgame, lauding Heston's resilience. "He's a four-pitch guy, gets good sink on the ball on both sides, he can four-seam it, he's got the curveball and slider. He throws a lot at you, and he's got the velocity to go with it. He's been around now; he's bounced back in the minor leagues after an arm injury and was taken off the roster. You have to give him a lot of credit for how he's got his game back."
Beyond trying to deliver on that plan and exploiting his strong sinker to generate a lot of ground ball outs, Heston has been using the opportunity to improve his game by relying on the veterans in the rotation.
"[I'm] trying to learn as much as possible," Heston said. "The guys in this clubhouse -- Peavy and Hud [Tim Hudson] and Cain -- these guys know so much about how to pitch guys. Just to be able to talk to them every day and learn from them is a huge part of why I've had some success. I'm talking to all of them, but maybe Huddy -- he's a sinkerball guy like me -- so I definitely pick his brain as much as possible."
Eventually, Peavy and Cain will be back, and for Heston, that means this opportunity might come to an end. But he's trying to avoid thinking about that.
"You try not to let that stuff get on your mind, as hard as it is. Knowing that those guys are close to coming back, but these guys will just help out when they get back. You try not to think about how it affects you, you just want these guys to get healthy and get back."
But one benefit of the early-season results is the Giants now know they're perhaps even deeper in starting pitching depth than they knew in March. And now that their offense is hitting on all cylinders, that might be a key advantage they have over the Dodgers in the NL West through the rest of the season.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.