Heimlich getting 'crisper' as he racks up the wins for Oregon State
CORVALLIS — By any other standards, Luke Heimlich would be having a career season.
Oregon State's senior left-hander leads the nation with nine pitching victories, tops the Pac-12 in strikeouts (79) and innings pitched (65) and is the ace of a Beaver team that is 29-6 overall and ranked between sixth and 10th in the national polls.
Problem is, Heimlich has to compare it to the greatest season by a pitcher in Oregon State history — his own last season, when he went 11-1 with a school-record and nation-leading 0.76 ERA. In 118 1/3 innings, he allowed only 70 hits with 22 walks and 128 strikeouts and an opponents' batting average of .172.
So far this season, Heimlich is 9-1 with a 3.18 ERA. He has yielded 58 hits with 17 walks and a .243 opponents' batting average.
His coaches didn't expect him to match his numbers of a year ago. Nate Yeskie, Oregon State's ninth-year pitching coach, doesn't believe he will ever see those stats again from anyone in a Beaver uniform.
"I knew he wouldn't match it," Yeskie said Friday night after Oregon State's series-clinching 2-1 victory over Oregon at Goss Stadium. "There was just no way. If that happened, it would be like seeing Halley's Comet twice in a two-year span."
OSU coaches were impressed with Heimlich's performance in Friday's series-opening 5-2 win over the Ducks. Over 7 1/3 innings, he allowed four hits and one earned run with one walk and 12 strikeouts.
"That was the crispest I've seen Luke all season," second baseman Nick Madrigal said. "He was right around the zone. His off-speed stuff was working. His fastballs were inside/outside. He was unhittable at times."
"His fastball was as good as I've seen it all year," OSU head coach Pat Casey said. "That's the most comfortable I've seen him on the mound this year."
Casey thinks Heimlich has spent much of the season pressing to match his almost unparalleled numbers of a year ago.
"Early in the season he was good, but (since then) it was like he was trying to throw the same numbers, or 'I'm not holding my own,'" says Casey, in his 24th year at the OSU helm. "He doesn't have to do that. He has tried to hold to himself to that standard, and that's hurt him.
"Every time he goes out there, he thinks he's not supposed to give up a run. His ERA last year was ridiculous. He has been putting too much pressure on himself. (Thursday) night was the first time this year I've seen him look comfortable on the mound."
Heimlich catches his coach's drift.
"There have been times when I got in situations where I felt like I had to make the perfect pitch, which isn't going to happen," he said. "What made me so effective last year was filling up the zone, trusting whatever pitch I was throwing and knowing Coach Yeskie was calling the right pitches. At times, I've tried to do too much."
Heimlich had by far his poorest outing over the past two seasons on April 7 against Arizona, yielding nine hits and six earned runs in 3 1/3 innings of a 15-4 loss. But Heimlich was coming off a 151-pitch weekend — 121 in a start against Utah, 30 as a closer against Nevada.
He earned Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week honors last week, throwing six innings of three-run ball in a 17-6 win over Missouri State. After that was Thursday's nifty outing against the Ducks.
"I feel good right now," Heimlich said. "My pitches are good. I'm able to get ahead in the count. I feel confident out there."
Heimlich spent last summer in Corvallis, conditioning and lifting weights, and now packs more than 200 pounds on his 6-1 frame. That has helped add some miles to his fastball, which topped out at 96 mph earlier this season. On Thursday, Heimlich hit 95 early in the game and 94 late.
"It has helped my endurance," he said. "I feel like I can maintain my velocity longer. It helps with recovery from week to week."
"When his fastball is on, it's crisper than it was last year," says Yeskie, who was named National Assistant Coach of the Year by D1Baseball.com and Pitching Coach of the Year by Collegiate Baseball last season. "The league adjusts; he has to adjust. He has to move the fastball a little bit more and be consistent with the breaking ball. There have been times where that's gotten away from him.
"He has been tough when he's ahead in the count. He did a little better job of that last year, but he is starting to get back into that groove now."
Perhaps an additional layer of pressure has been removed. Last August, records of the adjudication of a family sex offense case involving Heimlich were sealed in a Pierce County, Washington, court room. After reports of the 2012 case were published last May, Heimlich withdrew from participation on the team before a Super Regional matchup with Vanderbilt.
The No. 1-ranked Beavers, without Heimlich, were eliminated before reaching the title series at the College World Series. A week earlier, Heimlich — expected to be selected in the first two rounds of the major-league draft before news of the court case hit — went unchosen.
Heimlich, 22, has a clean record now. There are no restrictions on what he can with his life. Scouts are again taking a look at him in anticipation of the June 4-6 draft.
"I have confidence I'll be given a chance," Heimlich said.
Heimlich has had to have thick skin at times this season, notably from fans at one opponent's venue. He has been buoyed by support from family, friends and his OSU coaches and teammates.
"They've been amazing," he said. "They've done a good job of picking me up when I haven't performed up to expectations. I've really appreciated it.
"I'm enjoying the game right now. I love taking the mound every Friday night. It's been a fun year so far."
Coaches and teammates have always believed in Heimlich. So do OSU fans, who have greeted him with standing ovations several times this season.
"Our players respect him," Yeskie said. "Our fan base respects him. Luke has been a model student and model citizen every day he has been with us."
"Luke is one of the leaders on the team," Madrigal said. "Everyone has pulled for him through all he has gone through. He's a great teammate. He's an even better person than he is a pitcher."
Said Casey: "Luke has done everything he can to be the best he can, on and off the field."
Heimlich, now the school career record-holder in strikeouts, has 29 victories, seven short of the school-record 36 set by Ben Wetzler (2011-14). Health permitting, Heimlich will get five more regular-season starts. Then comes the postseason, with opportunities to pick up wins at a regional and Super Regional tournament.
Beaver fans all know what comes after that.
The College World Series "is our goal, like it always is," Heimlich said.
The Beavers won't equal their 56-6 record of a year ago, just as Heimlich won't duplicate his 2017 personal achievements.
"It's no longer about last year," he said. "We need to come out and make our own story. I think we have the team to do it."