A lot to like about Beavers in Game 1; a lot of love for Heimlich in his final game at Goss Stadium
CORVALLIS — Oregon State's resounding 8-1 victory over Minnesota in Friday's opener of their best-of-three super regional at Goss Stadium was about potent offense and sterling defense and, of course, moving within a win of reaching the College World Series for the second straight season and the sixth time since 2005.
But it was about much more than that, really.
It was also about Luke Heimlich making his final start in an Oregon State uniform, and the love those in the sellout crowd of 3,960 showed for the Puyallup, Washington, native who will go down as the greatest pitcher in the program's 112-year history.
Heimlich was spot-on as usual against the Gophers (44-14), cooling them on seven hits and one run with no walks and nine strikeouts over 8 2/3 innings while snapping their 12-game win streak.
It was an emotional scene when pitching coach Nate Yeskie came to the mound to bring on Sam Tweedt to get the game's final out. Heimlich hugged each of his infielders and catcher Adley Rutschman, then walked off to a thunderous standing ovation. The senior left-hander — normally stoic in demeanor — smiled and doffed his cap for the first time in his career as he headed to the dugout for more hugs and back slaps from teammates.
It wasn't over.
"Luke! Luke! Luke!" the fans chanted.
Heimlich emerged from the dugout, waving his cap as fans responded with another loud ovation.
"It's really great that they acknowledged what he has accomplished over his career," OSU coach Pat Casey said in his office at Goss afterward. "They're very proud of him and how he has handled a very tough situation."
Casey said it was the first time in 31 years of coaching at the collegiate level that he has had fans beckon for a curtain call from one of his players.
Denizens of Beaver Nation had been waiting for the moment in which they could show their appreciation and support for Heimlich, who wasn't selected in the recent major league draft despite possessing first-round ability. MLB clubs steered clear due to the public-relations hit they expected to receive from those who continue to demonize the pitcher over the adjudication of a juvenile sex offense case that was sealed last August in a Pierce County, Washington, court room.
Heimlich, 22, has a clean record now. There are no restrictions on what he can do with his life. "I have confidence I'll be given a chance," Heimlich told the Portland Tribune in April, speaking about his opportunities in the draft.
All 30 teams bypassed Heimlich in the draft for the second straight year. If it left him disheartened, he didn't let it show with his performance on Friday.
"That wasn't my focus at all," Heimlich said afterward. "The draft happened. We'll move forward and see what happens."
For the first time since late last season, Heimlich let his guard down as his home career came to a close.
"The fans have been incredibly supportive — my teammates, too," he said. "I know I won't get a start here again. It was kind of fun to enjoy it. I'm glad they have my back. It's been a great four years here."
Minutes before, Heimlich had told the media throng, "This place has been great to me. I've loved my time here. It has helped me a lot in becoming who I want to be as a person. It was a little bit emotional at the end as I was coming out of game, giving everybody hugs, saying I love them."
Heimlich was oblivious to the "Luke!" chants until teammates pointed them out.
"They told me I needed to go back out and do the curtain call," he said. "I was sitting down in the dugout, relaxing after getting out of the game. I didn't notice that the fans were calling for me."
In the media session, Heimlich evaded a couple of questions about whether Friday's performance helped him deal with the disappointment of being shunned in the draft. He shifted the conversation to Oregon State's bid for another victory in Saturday's second game of the series, which would assure a College World Series berth for the Beavers.
"I'm excited for the rest of the season," he said. "All of us are. I have more games to play. They're not taking the jersey off my back yet. Right now, we're focused on (Saturday) and if need be, the game after that. We'll worry about Omaha when we get there."
Oregon State (48-10-1) looked like an Omaha-bound club Friday, pounding out 11 hits — including back-to-back first-inning home runs by Trevor Larnach and Adley Rutschman — and playing flawless defense behind Heimlich.
"Luke was outstanding, and 'Rutsch' and Trev got us off to a great start," Casey said. "We played really well throughout the game and we defended, made some good plays behind him. It was a good way to start (the series)."
Larnach — chosen in the first round of the draft by Minnesota — had a superb game with two hits, including the two-run homer, and a sparkling defensive play in the third inning. He made a terrific over-the-shoulder catch of a drive by Minnesota shortstop Terrin Vavra in deep right-field with runners on first and third to end the inning.
"It looked like it took off once (Vavra) hit it," Larnach said. "I got on my giddy-up and started running. It carried a little more than I expected. I caught it full reach. I was glad I could get the job done."
Said Vavra: "Give the guy credit. He made a great play. Sometimes that happens."
Rutschman had a solo homer and double and was robbed of a third extra-base hit when Ben Mezzenga made a sensational catch of a Rutschman drive at the left-field fence with runners on first and second and two out in fifth.
The Beavers led 3-0 after one inning and 6-0 after three innings. The Gophers never got back into it.
'It was an uphill climb after it was 3-0 against a great pitcher," Minnesota coach John Anderson said. "Heimlich does a great job of commanding the fastball in the bottom of the zone, in and out. He pitched outstanding. We couldn't put together three, four, five at-bats in a row. That's a credit to him."
The Gophers haven't lost back-to-back games since early March. They'll send freshman Pat Fredrickson (9-0, 1.76), the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, to the mound Saturday to try to continue their season. Frederickson is a 6-6, 220-pound native of Gig Harbor, Washington.
"The guys have been great at re-setting and putting the last day behind them and not getting stuck by what happened yesterday," Anderson said. "They've shown a lot of grit and passion.
"We're playing an outstanding team, but these guys have shown some resiliency and toughness all year. They've come back after a loss and taken care of business and gotten ready to play again. I don't think that's going to change."
Casey isn't counting his chickens just yet.
"You always like to win the first win, but I'm never going to get ahead of myself," he said. "This is a very good club we're playing. They got here for a reason. We're playing one pitch, one inning at a time. We'll worry about the next game after this one is finished.
"Games get bigger the more games you win. If you want to play in big games, win the one you're playing. The next game is the biggest one of the year for us."
The Beavers will use junior right-hander Bryce Fehmel (10-1, 2.77) to try to close out the series Saturday. Heimlich, meanwhile, won't appear at Goss again. He is 16-1 and has set school single-season records in victories and strikeouts (151) in 2018. Heimlich is tied with Ben Wetzler for career wins (36) and holds the career mark for strikeouts (377).
For now, major-league teams are giving him the cold shoulder. He got anything but that Friday in his farewell performance at Goss.