CORVALLIS, Ore. – Friday afternoon the pitcher nobody in the major leagues appears ready to take a chance on took it to the Gophers.
Luke Heimlich is a 22-year-old lefthander for Oregon State with a big-time fastball and a nasty slider on the mound and a years-old felony in his past. It’s a past that kept the best pitcher in Division I baseball from being taken in the MLB draft for the second straight year.
But, on a rainy afternoon at Goss Stadium, with Oregon State’s MLB draft-laden roster scoring early and often, Heimlich was dominant in the Beavers’ 8-1 victory over the Gophers in the first game of the best-of-three NCAA super regional.
The Gophers (44-14) were stymied by Heimlich and victimized by Twins first-round draftee Trev Larnach, who hit a first-inning, two-out, two-run homer, then robbed the Gophers’ Terrin Vavra of a double in the top of the third when the game was still in question.
“Heimlich does a great job of commanding the fastball, in bottom of the zone, in and out,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “He pitched outstanding. Give him a lead like that, in their ballpark?”
Heimlich, who led Division I in victories and ERA this season, held the Gophers to one run and seven hits while striking out nine in 8⅔ innings. He improved to 16-1 on the season.
Years ago Heimlich pleaded guilty as a then 15-year-old to molesting a 6-year-old relative. The case became public in a report in the Oregonian newspaper last year, prompting Heimlich to take himself off the Beavers’ College World Series roster.
Since then, Heimlich has pitched very well and talked relatively little. But, in selected interviews with the national media, he has maintained his innocence, saying his plea came as a way to avoid a trial and possible jail time.
Friday, he was in control. The one true Gophers rally came in the top of the third, when, with two on and two outs and the Gophers down 4-0, Vavra’s rocket to right field was tracked down by Larnach for the final out. Had it fallen, the Gophers would likely have cut their deficit in half.
But they didn’t.
Toby Hanson ruined the Beavers’ shutout with a leadoff home run in the eighth. That made it 8-1.
The Beavers (48-10-1) scored six runs on nine hits over six innings off Gophers starter Reggie Meyer, whose 0-1 fastball to Larnach, too high in the zone, was sent over the left-field wall. Adley Rutschman followed with a homer of his own and the Gophers were in a 3-0 hole in the first inning.
And that was enough for Heimlich who, in the final home game of his college career, threw 124 pitches before leaving with two out in the eighth. He received a standing ovation as he left the field by the announced crowd of 3,960, and another when he came out of the dugout for a curtain call.
This success came just days after being snubbed in his second consecutive MLB draft.
“I’m still focused on this part of the season,” he said, when asked about the draft. “I have more games to play here. They’re not taking the jersey off my back yet. I’m focused on the games I still get to play.”
The Gophers, meanwhile, are focused on getting back into this series, knowing that beating the Beavers twice will be difficult; Oregon State improved to 23-5 at home this season and is only one game away from its sixth trip to the College World Series since 2005.
But the Gophers, whose 12-game winning streak came to an end, haven’t lost consecutive games since early March. That’s a streak Anderson intends to continue.
“Our guys have been great at resetting, preparing for the next day,” he said. “Being able to put the last day behind them and move on. They’ve done it all year. That’s my message to ’em. We have to be ready to play with the first pitch of the first inning tomorrow. We have to get some of the momentum back to our side.’’