SAN FRANCISCO -- If all had gone according to plan, Chris Heston would have spent four days in Reno earlier this month, pitching for the Sacramento River Cats. As it turns out, Heston will spend part of this month in that area, but not to play baseball.
The rookie is headed to Lake Tahoe with close friends to unwind and celebrate a bit after a stunning first half. Heston pitched into the seventh Sunday, helping the Giants win 4-2 and sweep the Philadelphia Phillies. He was a surprise addition to the rotation during the season's first week when Matt Cain went down with a flexor strain, and the right-hander ended up going 9-5 with a 3.39 ERA in his first full half in the big leagues. What exactly has that meant to a Giants team that's three games over .500 despite a series of injuries and several long losing streaks?
"He's been a savior, that's pretty much it," manager Bruce Bochy said. "You lose Cain, you lose Peavy, and you need someone from the system to hopefully step up and help you out. In order for a team to have a good year and get where you want to go, you have to have a surprise or two."
The Giants have several. Matt Duffy has put up All-Star-caliber numbers at third base and Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik will obliterate their previous career-highs in power categories. George Kontos has been a force in the bullpen and Nori Aoki was better than advertised. The biggest surprise, though, has been Heston, a 27-year-old who was designated for assignment not too long ago and now is a fixture in the rotation.
"It's just been a lot of fun," Heston said, smiling. "I've tried to enjoy it as much as I can and learn as much as I can."
[INSTANT REPLAY: Susac, Heston lead Giants to sweep of Phillies]
Heston provided the highlight of the first half when he no-hit the Mets, and he was sharp in a different way early Sunday, facing the minimum through six innings. He gave up four hits during that span but got three double plays and Andrew Susac erased the other single with a great throw down to second. Heston called his first half "a crazy situation," and it sounds like he's finally realizing just what he has managed to accomplish. He said he would reminisce a bit while sitting by the lake.
"It's just been business since I got here," Heston said. "Hopefully with these three days, I can kind of step back here and soak it all in."
When Heston returns next week in Arizona, site of his season debut, he'll be faced with an entirely different sort of challenge. Heston threw 173 innings in the minors last season and 5 1/3 more in the big leagues, but he's on pace to shoot way past that as a rookie. Heston is projected to throw over 200 innings this season, and while the Giants are confident that his build can handle the workload, Heston is well aware that he needs to be just as ready in September as he was in April. If everything works out, he'll be pitching in October, too.
"I just have to stay adamant about the stuff I do in between starts," he said. "The conditioning, the working out, taking care of the arm. As long as I take care of those things, I should be fine."
If he needs a road map, Heston can just look a couple lockers down at Madison Bumgarner, the face of durability. There's no better lead to follow in the Giants clubhouse and Heston has done his best to match Bumgarner step for step. Both have nine wins at the break with Bumgarner holding the slight ERA edge (3.33 to 3.39). Bumgarner has thrown 119 innings to Heston's 111 2/3.
"He keeps me going," Heston said. "He gives me something to chase after."
The race continues at the plate, except recently it has been Bumgarner doing the chasing. Heston was tied for the MLB lead for hits by a pitcher until Bumgarner got two knocks Friday, getting to 10 for the season. Heston and Max Scherzer each have nine hits, something that comes up often in clubhouse conversation. Bumgarner is the reigning Silver Slugger in the National League, and Heston knows he has a lot more work to do if he wants to wrestle that trophy away. Bumgarner, who homered off Clayton Kershaw earlier this season, holds the tiebreaker.
"Nothing else I do matters until I get that homer," Heston said.
--- Susac had the big hit today, a three-run homer to dead center. Susac said he was pressing a bit at the plate recently, but that shot was no cheapie. Not many guys can put it out to dead center here. "It felt good to shorten up the stroke," Susac said.
The rookie also called a hell of a game. Susac and Heston went sinker-heavy the first time through the lineup, getting three double plays in the first four innings. After that, the kitchen sink came out, with Heston striking out five of eight hitters at one point.
"We tried to limit showing off-speed stuff until the second time through," Susac said.
--- Bochy on the 46-43 first half. "Overall, it's pretty good, to be honest. If you look at the start, we almost buried ourselves." The Giants still have not had a real prolonged stretch with their full squad, but they expect Nori Aoki back in the next couple of weeks and Tim Hudson returns to the rotation next week. This is the time to make a run, and they'd better, because the August schedule is brutal.
--- Hey Buster Posey, where would the Giants be without Chris Heston? "Oof," he said. "We wouldn't be where we are, that's for sure."
--- Bochy pulled Brandon Belt because he wanted Gregor Blanco's glove in left field, but he admitted that Belt has a sore knee, too. Good time for the All-Star break.
--- It's been clear throughout the first half and it stood out today: Buster Posey is much, much better at first base than he was even a year ago. Bochy mentioned it and Brandon Crawford did, too. What's the secret? Posey said he's been working with infield coach Ron Wotus, but mostly, "It's just about repetition. I've been out there more this year than in the past."
The Chronicle's Henry Schulman jokingly asked Posey if Duffy's emergence has pleased him because it stops all the Buster-to-third questions, and Posey said he hasn't been getting those for a while, anyway. Then he revealed that he wouldn't hear them on talk radio because he never listens to talk radio.
So, what does Buster Posey listen to during his commute?
"You know what, I have twin 3-year-olds," Posey said. "I listen to nothing. I enjoy the silence."