Coming off the greatest pitching season in Oregon State baseball history, Luke Heimlich was hell-bent on fine-tuning his already splendid arsenal.
Heimlich knew last year’s numbers, most notably a school-record and Division I-leading earned run average of 0.76, were likely not repeatable. But the 2017 Pac-12 pitcher of the year saw opportunities to improve that were concealed by the gaudy statistics.
The ERA and opponent batting average are predictably up, but pitching coach Nate Yeskie has steadfastly asserted that OSU’s senior ace is better this spring. The last two weeks, Yeskie’s claim has been unassailable.
Heimlich was overwhelming in starts against Missouri State and Oregon, striking out a combined 22 with three walks in 13⅓ innings. The left-hander fanned seven of the first nine Ducks he faced Thursday to set the tone as No. 7 OSU (29-6, 10-5) went on to sweep the Civil War conference series.
“The first two innings out here the other night were just, oof,” Yeskie said. “The biggest thing for him is understanding that he’s not going to be who he was last year. It’s constantly evolving, there are tons of things you have to continue to work at and you’ve got to be the best version of who you are that day.”
Heimlich (9-1, 3.18) checked all the boxes in 7⅓ innings against Oregon, surrendering just one earned run with 12 strikeouts. Coach Pat Casey noted that Heimlich was more relaxed on the mound after struggling in starts at Utah and Arizona.
Thursday represented Heimlich’s 29th college victory, the third-most in OSU history behind Ben Wetzler (36) and Ken Noble (30). His 305 career punch-outs top the school’s all-time list.
“It shows two things,” Heimlich said of the strikeouts record during Friday’s pregame radio interview. “One, it shows that you’re getting ahead … and also that my off-speed is sharp.”
Prior to Thursday’s postgame scrum, Heimlich had not spoken to the media since a report detailing his juvenile record was published last June. He gave his first radio interview of the season the following day.
Yeskie believes Heimlich has done “a tremendous job” of staying focused through a turbulent period of time.
“People believe in him, they stand by him, they know what his character is,” Yeskie said. “Ultimately for him this has been, given the circumstances of everything, a blessing in disguise because he’s around people that care about him. And I think that’s what everyone wants in life, they want to be surrounded by people that help make things better.”
While earning first-team All-America honors a season ago, Heimlich’s fastball and slider velocity tended to fade late in games. A first-inning 95 mile-per-hour heater would be 91 in the seventh and his breaking ball would become loopier.
Heimlich can now hold his velocity throughout a start and unleash devastating sliders after the 100-pitch mark.
“I feel really good all-around right now,” Heimlich said. “I do feel stronger than last year and I feel I can pitch better and deeper into games.”
In the never-ending quest to improve, Heimlich altered his between-start routine for the first two months of the 2018 season.
Heimlich, who previously threw one midweek bullpen, wanted to experiment with two sessions. Yeskie OK’d the decision, but Heimlich scrapped the extra throw day after his start at Missouri State.
On five days rest, Heimlich was sharper than ever against Oregon.
“It was something he wanted to add that would help him develop in some areas,” Yeskie said of the second throwing session. “We gave it an honest run for an extended period of time and didn’t feel like it was really paying dividends for some of the things it was designed for. So we eliminated it and went back to our blueprint that we had in the past.”
Yeskie said it’s not unusual for experienced pitchers to alter their routines, noting that Wetzler, Matt Boyd and Josh Osich all tried different things. Heimlich had earned the right to voice his opinion.
“You have to allow them to take some ownership,” Yeskie added. “It can’t be a dictatorship, because otherwise you are coaching robots.
“It’s just human nature. People think if something’s good, more is better. … Sometimes kids try to out-think it or maybe do some things that aren’t necessary, and ultimately we just thought that second throwing session wasn’t going to be beneficial for him. So we scrapped it and we will continue to follow that course next week.”
The Beavers, who have a nonconference matchup with Portland at 5 p.m. Tuesday in Hillsboro, will be back at home Friday for a three-game set with Arizona State. Heimlich is slated to start the opener on seven days rest.
Heimlich, who does lead the nation with nine wins, admitted that he has occasionally tried too hard while striving for perfection.
There have been instances where Heimlich relied on brute strength instead of pitching aptitude, causing him to make mistakes in the strike zone. He’s already allowed 23 earned runs this spring after giving up just 10 in 16 starts a season ago.
Heimlich is aware of the problem and working to correct it.
“Early on in the year, I kind of got to the point where if I was going to throw a fastball, I would throw it as hard as I could every time and see if I could blow it by somebody or make the perfect pitch,” he said. “What made me effective last year was getting ahead in the count, and once you’re ahead you can expand the zone with a good out pitch.”
Heimlich did exactly that in the Civil War, an outing that rivaled his best 2017 performances.
“He was really crisp,” Nick Madrigal said. “I know he has been working hard these last couple of weeks, and he looked really good.”