By Bob Lundeberg

Corvallis Gazette Times

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Arizona at Oregon St.

When: 7 p.m. Friday TV: Pac-12

Radio: KICE 940-AM, KCOE 94.9-FM

CORVALLIS — In late May 2014, Luke Heimlich received a call from Nate Yeskie.

It was a few days before Puyallup High’s Washington state championship baseball game and the Oregon State pitching coach wanted to see if Heimlich — who was only a junior — would come to Corvallis a year early.

“I wasn’t exactly sure what (Yeskie) was saying because I didn’t even know I could do that,” said Heimlich, who will take the mound Friday night as top-ranked Oregon State (17-1, 3-0) opens a three-game series with No. 9 Arizona (16-4, 2-1) at Goss Stadium.

“But once I talked it over with my family and kind of weighed the pros and cons … obviously coming out of high school you have the option of the draft, but I knew I didn’t want to go in there. I wanted to come to college and get my education. Skipping the draft also made it easy for me to not be tempted by money or some sort of offering.

“So it basically came down to I was going to go to college either way, and rather than playing against teams with my high school where we were just rolling over people, it was a way to challenge myself and play some really good competition a year in advance.”

Heimlich went on to pitch a complete game in the state semifinals and started at designated hitter as Puyallup won the Washington 4A title with a 7-1 win over South Kitsap. It was the first state championship in program history.

The left-hander then opted to graduate high school early and enroll at Oregon State that September.

“He was close academically but his baseball IQ was advanced, and we just thought that once the body caught up with the mind you could really start to see what you’re seeing now,” Yeskie said of Heimlich. “But that overall package is really what we saw. He’s got moxie, to me he’s just oozing with it. When the stuff started to turn the corner like it is now, that’s kind of what we envisioned.”

Heimlich has been nearly untouchable in 2017, compiling a 4-0 record with a league-best 0.25 ERA in five starts. The 6-foot-1, 197-pounder has struck out 44 batters while allowing just 18 hits and five walks in 362⁄3 innings.

In last week’s Pac-12 opener at Arizona State, Heimlich scattered two hits with eight strikeouts in eight shutout innings.

“I think he’s matured,” Beavers head coach Pat Casey said of Heimlich. “Two years and he’s gotten stronger. It’s the first time in his life that he’s really gotten to work in the weight room. I also think the game’s kind of been a teacher for him. I don’t know how many starts he got last year, but that was a big part of his success this year.”

Heimlich pitched 521⁄3 innings as a freshman, posting a 2-5 record with a 3.61 ERA. He made 20 appearances with 11 starts last year and had a 7-4 record with a 3.53 ERA in 862⁄3 innings.

The numbers have reached new heights in 2017.

“I could definitely see a change in his mentality and how he goes about his business,” fellow starting pitcher Jake Thompson said. “I think this year, he definitely believes that this is his spot. He’s the Friday-night guy, he wants to show everyone that he deserves it and he’s definitely showed that so far.”

Added Heimlich: “I tried to focus on just going after everything with the intensity that I take on game days. I was always very competitive on the field, and I decided that if I wanted to be successful I needed to take that same mentality when I was lifting weights and when I was doing bullpen and everything else I did.”

A desire to throw harder kept Heimlich motivated in the weight room.

Throughout his first two years at OSU, Heimlich’s fastball typically sat in the middle to high 80s (mph). Heimlich has consistently been 90 to 92 this season and touched 95 at Arizona State.

“I had always wanted to throw hard, but you kind of handicap yourself sometimes,” Heimlich said. “I would watch pitchers like Jamie Moyer … and I would see what they do and compare myself to them rather than try to set my goals really high. Instead I could be like ‘OK, what makes Clayton Kershaw really successful, or Madison Bumgarner and why do they throw really hard?’ So once you kind of start moving your ceiling up, it allows you to kind of work harder.”

The added velocity has also helped turn Heimlich’s slider into a devastating out pitch.

Entering this weekend, Heimlich is second behind Oregon’s David Peterson (48) for the Pac-12’s strikeout lead.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how he’s held his velocity with his fastball,” Yeskie said. “He was a command guy out of high school and I think when he got banged a couple times early with the barrel as a freshman it got him a little gun-shy, but he just kept fighting his way through.”

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