Heimlich in control as Beavers take series opener vs. Stanford
CORVALLIS — Luke Heimlich may never have been better, and he chose an opportune time for it.
The senior left-hander tamed Stanford on three hits over eight innings and recorded a career-high 14 strikeouts as Oregon State opened the biggest three-game series of the college season with a 6-2 victory Friday night at Goss Stadium.
A stadium-record crowd of 3,830 reveled in the action as the No. 3-ranked Beavers (37-7-1 overall, 15-6-1 in Pac-12 play) closed the gap to 1 1/2 games behind the No. 2-ranked Cardinal (38-7, 17-5) in the race for the conference championship.
With more than two dozen pro scouts looking on, Heimlich displayed an overpowering fastball that registered as high as 94 miles per hour, leaving OSU pitching coach Nate Yeskie searching for superlatives.
"That's as lively a fastball as I've seen at Oregon State," said Yeskie, in his ninth year handling the Beaver mound corps. "We've had some arms run through here. I've watched tape on pitchers in our program through the past 20 years. What Luke showed tonight is on par with any of them who have stepped in here.
"The breaking ball was mostly sharp, and he sprinkled a few changeups in there, but the fastball — man, it was really good. Even on some obvious fastball counts, (Stanford's hitters) couldn't handle them."
Heimlich (12-1) said afterward that it was "probably not" his best performance this season.
"I didn't have my changeup working as much," said Heimlich, who leads the nation in pitching victories. "I only threw it six or seven times, and not really in the zone. The last two weeks against Arizona State and Washington State, I threw it 15 to 20 times. I used my entire arsenal, and that's something I have to make sure I have going forward."
But Heimlich was plenty good enough to still the bats of a potent Stanford lineup. He struck out the side in the third and seventh innings and allowed only three fly-ball outs.
"Luke kept the ball down, the velocity was up — he was outstanding," OSU head coach Pat Casey said. "He made only one or two mistakes the whole game."
One, really. After left-handed hitter Kyle Stowers broke up Heimlich's no-hit bid with a one-out bloop double down the left-field line in the fifth inning, sophomore designated hitter Will Matthiessen out of West Linn — the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week — hammered a fastball over the left-field fence for a two-run homer.
The only other Cardinal hit was a two-out single to left field by lefty hitter Alec Wilson in the eighth.
Fortunately for the Beavers, they'd gotten to Stanford starter Tristan Beck for four runs in the first two innings, so Matthiessen's blast only trimmed the margin to 4-2.
The Beavers added on a pair of insurance runs on Trevor Larnach's two-run single in the eighth.
By that time, Heimlich had thrown 113 pitches. He gave way to closer Jake Mulholland, who retired the Cardinal in order in the ninth.
The normally stoic Heimlich showed emotion on the mound at times, especially late in the game. He was caught up in the moment, he said, of the Beavers' biggest win of the season and the electric atmosphere provided by the Beaver faithful.
"There was a little more adrenaline tonight," Heimlich said. "The fans were great from the first batter. They were loud all game. It's a lot of fun having them behind us. It's a big energy boost for us. It's our job to get the fans involved and make things interesting. We were able to do that, and they kept the energy up throughout the game."
A year ago, Heimlich was the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year, going 11-1 with a nation's-best 0.76 ERA and a .172 opponents' batting average. Aside from the record and a conference-leading 115 strikeouts, the numbers aren't as gaudy this season, with a 2.94 ERA and a .216 opponents batting average.
"Throw the numbers out the window," Yeskie said. "Luke has been better this year than last year. Baseball is a funny thing. Numbers don't always tell the story."
In his last five starts — against Missouri State, Oregon, Arizona State, Washington State and Stanford — Heimlich has yielded 22 hits and 10 earned runs with five walks and 58 strikeouts in 37 innings.
"That's better than pretty good," Yeskie said.
First baseman Michael Gretler — whose double plated two of the Beavers' three first-inning runs — reverted to Heimlich's gem in a regional win against Yale last season (seven innings, two hits, no runs, one walk and eight strikeouts) as means of comparison.
"When he pitched last week (against WSU), that looked a lot like Yale," Gretler said. "Tonight, he was even better."
"I'm trusting my stuff, filling up the zone," Heimlich said. "I walked two guys, which isn't great. I try to stay away from walks and three-ball counts. For the most part, it was strike one, strike two. I was in control of the game tonight."
Casey was pleased to win the series opener, with OSU junior right-hander Bryce Fehmel (6-1, 3.49) going against Stanford junior left-hander Kris Bubec (7-0, 2.25) in Saturday's 2 p.m. contest. In the finale at noon on Sunday, the Beavers will likely send out freshman right-hander Kevin Abel (3-0, 4.46) against Stanford sophomore left-hander Erik Miller (4-2, 3.48).
"It makes me feel a lot better," Casey said with a wry smile. "I'll at least sleep an hour tonight. Any time you get the first game, it helps."