Together, Beavers pull out a win over Vanderbilt in NCAA Super Regional
CORVALLIS — Resilience has been the byword to the unprecedented success achieved by Oregon State's baseball team this season.
But perhaps never has it been more on display than in the Beavers' 8-4 victory over Vanderbilt on Friday night to open their best-of-three Super Regional before a Goss Stadium-record crowd of 3,737.
With ace pitcher Luke Heimlich in uniform but watching from the dugout, the nation's top-seeded nine moved within one victory of the program's fifth College World Series berth in 13 years.
But the final step is a big one, indeed.
"You got to win two," offered Oregon State coach Pat Casey, and his counterpart, Vanderbilt's Tim Corbin, opined in similar fashion when asked about the significance of the Beavers' Friday win.
"It's just one game," Corbin said. "It's history now. We'll respond (Saturday). One game doesn't mean two."
Vanderbilt (36-24-1) will send to the mound junior right-hander Kyle Wright, who owns only a 5-5 record but sports a 2.98 ERA, with 113 strikeouts in 96 2/3 innings and an opponents' batting average of .210. After Friday's game, Commodores third baseman Will Toffey called Wright "the best pitcher in college baseball."
Statistically, Wright is not even close to Heimlich, the junior left-hander whom Yale coach John Stuper referred to last weekend as "the best pitcher I've seen in 25 years as a college coach."
Heimlich, 11-1 with a nation-leading 0.76 ERA, ruled himself out of Friday's game little more than 24 hours after an Oregon Live story revealing that the Puyallup, Washington, native is registered as a sex offender stemming from a conviction for an incident that occurred eight years ago.
In 2012, Heimlich pleaded guilty to a single charge of sexually molesting a 6-year-old niece when he was 15 years old in 2011. In Washington, child molestation in the first degree is a Class A felony. Heimlich, who turned 21 on Feb. 3, successfully completed two years of probation and underwent two years of sex offender treatment, both during his high school years.
After discussing the situation with school administrators Thursday night, Casey intended to start Heimlich on the mound in Friday night's opener. Sometime Friday, that changed. In the afternoon, Heimlich released a statement "respectfully requesting to be excused from playing at this time."
Continued the statement: "I have taken responsibility for my conduct when I was a teenager. As a 16-year-old, I was placed on juvenile court probation and ordered to participate in an individual counseling program. I'm grateful for the counseling I received, and since then, I realized the only way forward was to work each day on becoming the best person, community member and student I can possibly be. I understand that many people now see me differently, but I hope I can eventually be judged for the person I am today."
It's fair to say Oregon State's administrators had a part in Heimlich's decision to sit. There was pressure, subtle and otherwise, on Casey and the coaching staff, and also on the university not to allow Heimlich to play. Heimlich was surely aware of that, too.
Casey — who feels Heimlich paid his debt to society and should be allowed to move on with his life — met with his players before Friday's game to discuss the situation. During Friday's radio pregame show, Casey told broadcaster Mike Parker, "The support (the OSU players) are going to get from me is right now the only support they're getting, other than from our fans, and that's great. I'm happy with that."
No, Casey isn't happy about it. Neither are the Beaver players, caught in a difficult situation on an issue that transcends sports. In a postgame press conference, I asked second baseman Nick Madrigal if there was any extra emotion involved given the circumstances with Heimlich.
"We've been preparing for this game the whole offseason," Madrigal said. "We just approached it like any other game."
Not really. The Beavers were extra-amped, rallying around each other in support of what amounted to a wounded teammate. There's no doubt it was the most dramatic victory of an unforgettably emotional season. It felt that way, too, with Beaver Nation, jarred by the news concerning one of the top pitchers in the program's long history.
When he was introduced as one of 27 Oregon State players in uniform, Heimlich received a warm ovation from the crowd. He stayed in the dugout and supported his teammates during the game.
They gave him plenty to cheer about, jumping on Vanderbilt starter Patrick Raby early. KJ Harrison's three-run home run provided Oregon State a 3-0 lead in the first inning. After left fielder Christian Donahue misplayed a routine fly ball by Ethan Paul, which fell for a double, the Commodores scored three runs to tie it in the top of the second. Madrigal delivered a two-run double in the bottom half for a 5-3 lead, and the Beavers never trailed again.
"We played with energy," Casey said. "We played with the type of togetherness we talk about all the time."
Jake Thompson — who didn't learn he was pitching until hours before the game — put together a gutsy performance, limiting Vanderbilt to seven hits and four runs in 7 2/3 innings. The junior right-hander walked two, struck out seven and threw 120 pitches, three short of his career high.
"Thompson was really good," Casey said. "If we catch the fly ball in left field … he gives up one run, and that's a really good team we played."
Thompson ran his record to 14-0, matching the school single-season win record co-held by Scott Christman (1993) and Andrew Moore (2013). His teammates banged out 10 hits with five walks.
"They put a lot of pressure on us, particularly early," Corbin said. "They got the big hit two straight innings, which was a shot in the gut. You have to give that offense credit. Every single hitter got on base at least one time."
Things don't get easier for Oregon State, though, through the rest of the Super Regional, which would continue Sunday with a Vanderbilt win Saturday night.
Heimlich won't be pitching. Sophomore Drew Rasmussen, who lasted only four innings in a win over Yale in last weekend's regional, is dealing with soreness from a hematoma in his pitching arm after being hit by a line drive the previous week against Abilene Christian. His availability is day to day.
If Rasmussen can't pitch, that leaves sophomore right-hander Bryce Fehmel, who lost his starting rotation spot to Rasmussen after several ineffective starts in April and early May, as Saturday's probable starter.
"We have two options — Fehmel and Raz," Casey said. "We'll go with one of those guys."
OSU has several capable arms behind them, including freshman left-hander Brandon Eisert and sophomore right-hander Sam Tweedt, who closed Friday night and got his first save of the season.
"We have a fresh bullpen, plenty of arms," Casey said. "There are going to have to be some people who step up."
Madrigal, who had suffered the effects of a bone bruise to his left hand after being hit by a pitch against Oregon on May 13, said he is healthy. Oregon State needs production at the plate from the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
"The hand feels good," he said. "It's not a problem. I'm good. There are no worries there."
The Beavers (53-4) clinched the winningest season in school history Friday night with their 20th straight victory. They need one more to write their ticket to Omaha.
"I'm proud of our guys," Casey said. "They show up at the yard every day. Can't tell you how much as a coach you appreciate that. They get that part of it.
"There's less said at this time of year. You let 'em play. They've done a great job on their own. They're really self-motivated young men. They know what they're doing."
If they're to beat the Commodores one more time, they'll do it without Heimlich. Casey wishes that weren't the case.
"I can just tell you he is a fine young man," the OSU coach said. "For every second he has been on this campus, on and off the field, he has been a first-class individual. He is someone his family should be proud of, our community should be proud of, our team is proud of. I believe in Luke."