Billy Godwin spent the ninth inning nervously pacing back and forth while Chris Heston put the finishing touches on the first major league no-hitter of the season Tuesday night – and Godwin was watching from Tampa, Fla., more than 1,100 miles from Citi Field in New York.
Heston, a 27-year-old rookie and former East Carolina standout, pitched the fourth no-hitter in as many years for the San Francisco Giants, shutting down the host New York Mets 5-0 in a dominant performance.
Godwin was Heston’s coach at ECU. Now an area scout in North and South Carolina for the New York Yankees, Godwin watched the final three innings of Heston’s gem on the MLB network Tuesday night from the Yankees’ “war room” following the second day of the Major League Draft.
“We were in the draft room, the (second day of) draft was over, and we were sitting around talking about today,” Godwin said in a telephone interview, referring to Wednesday’s final day of drafting. “The Yankees were playing on MLB (network), and it came up about the sixth inning, a no-hitter alert.
“I said, ‘Holy cow! That’s one of my guys!’ Then they showed the seventh, eighth and ninth innings on TV. That was really cool for me.”
Godwin admitted he got nervous watching.
“It was funny, I was OK in the seventh and eighth,” he said. “I didn’t get real hyper about it until the ninth. We were sitting around the table, but in the ninth I got up and started pacing, just like I was in the dugout. The guys said I was making them nervous.”
When Heston hit ninth-inning leadoff batter Anthony Recker with a pitch – Heston’s third hit batter of the game – Godwin said he expected a ground ball double play.
“But then he struck out the last three guys, which was really cool,” said Godwin, who swapped congratulatory texts with Heston afterward.
“That was a pretty exciting moment,” Heston told the assembled media after the game. “Definitely something I’ll remember forever. I wasn’t too sure where to go after that last out. I wanted to turn around and give Buster (Posey, his catcher) a hug.
“Just to be out there and to have an opportunity, I’m really blessed.”
Godwin wasn’t Heston’s only former coach who was watching. Brad Thomsen, who was Heston’s Little League coach growing up in Palm Bay, Fla., was on hand at Citi Field, seeing Heston for the first time as a major leaguer.
“I had tears in my eyes,” Thomsen told MLB.com. “My blood pressure and heart was up that last inning.”
Heston struck out 11, did not walk a batter and allowed only three baserunners, all on hit batsmen. Two came back-to-back in the fourth inning, when Heston plunked Ruben Tejada and Lucas Duda with one out. But a double play got him out of the inning.
Somewhat surprisingly, Heston never had a close call on a base hit as only two balls left the infield as he recorded his second complete game in his 13th major league start. The toughest chance came when shortstop Brandon Crawford made a backhand grab of Eric Campbell’s grounder and threw him out to end the eighth.
Not surprisingly, Heston logged a number of milestones along the way. He became the first pitcher since Sandy Koufax in 1965 to finish a no-hitter by striking out the side. He is the first rookie since Boston’s Clay Buchholz in 2007 to throw a no-hitter in his first 15 major league starts.
Buchholz got his in only his second career start.
Only two rookies have notched more strikeouts while throwing a no-hitter, Don Wilson of the Astros (15 in 1967) and Jim Bibby of the Rangers (13 in 1973).
Heston is the third Giants rookie to throw a no-hitter, joining Christy Mathewson (1901) and Jeff Tesreau (1912), the 23rd major league rookie overall, and the 10th player with North Carolina ties. It is the 17th no-hitter in Giants history and marks the fourth consecutive season the Giants have had one. Matt Cain did it in 2012, and Tim Lincecum accomplished the feat in 2013 and 2014.
Heston came to ECU from Seminole Community College in Florida, but Godwin said he soon became the Pirates’ Friday starter as a junior in 2009, his only year in Greenville. He made the All-Conference USA first team, going 7-0 with a 4.17 ERA.
“That was a team that won a regional and went to the super regional,” said Godwin, who was head coach of the Pirates from 2006-2014. “Three kids from that team are pitching in the big leagues: Chris Heston, Seth Maness of the Cardinals and Michael Wright of the Orioles.”
Godwin remembers Heston as a “tremendous competitor and a tremendous person, just a nice kid.”
“He had a really loose arm, fastball, curveball, changeup,” Godwin said. “He just kind of came into his own that junior year. He went to San Francisco in the 12th round (of the draft) and had success in the minor leagues. It wasn’t the fastest track, but he’s there now and doing great.”
It took Heston six years to climb the Giants’ minor league ladder. In 2013 the Giants even designated him for assignment and released him in the midst of his first Triple-A season, when he went 7-6 with a 5.80 ERA. But Heston went unclaimed, and the Giants re-signed him three days later. He rebounded in 2014 to go 12-9 and lower his ERA to 3.38 with Triple-A Fresno. That season earned him a September call-up to the Giants, when he pitched in three games with one start.
Heston wasn’t on the major league roster this spring and only made the club because Cain and Jake Peavy were injured. Despite a 6-4 record and 3.77 ERA in 12 starts, with 66 strikeouts in 74 innings, he has struggled with inconsistency this season.
In his previous outing, Heston lasted only 32/3 innings and gave up five runs to the Pirates. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last pitcher to follow a start of less than five innings with a no-hitter was Nolan Ryan of the Angels in 1973.
Did Godwin see a future major leaguer in Heston?
“That’s hard to do,” he said. “I knew he was a great competitor. I knew he had the potential with his stuff. I knew he had the intangibles, with talent, makeup and character. But for me to say he was going to pitch in the big leagues, I’d be lying.”
Nevertheless, Koufax, Mathewson, Ryan. That’s pretty heady company for a rookie.
“Everything is about the getting the opportunity,” Godwin said. “He has made the most of it.”
North Carolina no-nos
Chris Heston, who pitched for East Carolina in 2009, became at least the 10th pitcher from a North Carolina high school or college to throw a no-hitter in the major leagues.
Also homered and drove in four runs in 9-0 win.
Outpitched Don Larsen, struck out 8 against 1958 world champs.
Rookie sandwiched no-hitter around 10-hit games. Finished career 16-14.
Walked second batter he faced; nobody else reached base.
Perfect game? Indeed. Struck out Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew three times and drove in three runs with three hits.
Hall of Famer outdueled Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, who allowed just four hits in 1-0 win.
First no-hitter in Texas Rangers history came against Reggie Jackson-led A’s, World Series champs from 1972-74.
Walked seven, struck out 10 in a 130-pitch effort.
Bessemer City HS
Barry Bonds hit 45 homers in 2003, but flew out deep to right on an 0-for-3 day.
First rookie to throw a no-hitter since Clay Buchholz in 2007, 22nd rookie overall.
Sources: News & Observer research, baseballreference.com
By the numbers
Chris Heston made 15 starts for ECU in 2009:
▪ 7-0 record
▪ 4.17 ERA
▪ 90 2/3 innings pitched
▪ 90 hits allowed
▪ 88 strikeouts