OMAHA, Neb. – Oregon State pitcher Luke Heimlich is the probable starter in the opening game of the College World Series on Saturday and he said he is ready for any kind of reception he receives from the fans on the sport’s biggest stage.
Heimlich, 22, is in Omaha a year after it was disclosed he had pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a young relative when he was 15. He has denied wrongdoing in recent interviews with Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, saying he entered the guilty plea to spare his family the ordeal of a trial.
Heimlich received a standing ovation when the left-handed ace walked off the mound at his home ballpark for the last time last week. But he will be on college baseball’s biggest stage — 1,700 miles from Corvallis, Oregon — when the Beavers face North Carolina at TD Ameritrade Park.
“I’m not worried about the fans. I play baseball on the field,” Heimlich said in the Oregon State clubhouse Friday. “The fans can cheer me on. They can boo. They can do what they want. I’m here to play baseball.”
Heimlich has played a major role in the Beavers making it to the CWS for the second year in a row. He leads the nation in wins with a school-record 16-1 record and 151 strikeouts in 120 1/3 innings. He was named Pac-12 pitcher of the year for the second straight season.
Last year, after The Oregonian newspaper first reported Heimlich’s juvenile record, Heimlich opted to sit out the super regional and did not make the trip to Omaha.
“It wasn’t fun,” Heimlich said. “I watched some of it from home. One of the games I went on a hike, the other I was on a beach somewhere. I definitely was following (it).”
Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor and activist who speaks to college sports teams around the country, said Heimlich should not have been allowed to rejoin the team this season. The Heimlich story hits close to home for her. Tracy alleged she was gang raped by four men, including three Oregon State football players, when she was a student at OSU in 1998.
“It’s long past time for universities and athletic departments to ban violent athletes,” she said. “There are consequences for your behavior, and playing sports is a privilege.”
Tracy said the NCAA should adopt the rule passed this month by the Big Sky Conference that prevents individuals with a history of convicted violence to receive athletic-related financial aid or participate in practice or competition. The misconduct includes any act of sexual violence, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and assault with a deadly weapon.
Heimlich, a senior from Puyallup, Washington, initially was charged with two counts of molestation. He ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of molestation between February 2011 and December 2011, a period during which he was 15. Prosecutors dismissed the other charge.
He entered a diversion program, received two years of probation and was ordered to attend sex offender treatment for two years, according to court records. He was ordered to serve 40 weeks of detention at a juvenile facility, but that sentence was suspended and he served no time because he successfully completed probation.
Heimlich deflected questions touching on his history with a stock answer: “I’m focused on continuing to help my team win games.”
His future after the CWS is to be determined. Widely considered a first-round talent, he went undrafted two straight years. He still could sign with a major league club as an undrafted free agent, play in an independent league or overseas.
“I had no expectations going into the draft,” he said. “I have a great group of guys around me and we’re excited to continue playing baseball.”
Heimlich turned in one of his best performances in Game 1 of super regionals in Corvallis on June 8. He allowed one run on seven hits, walked none and struck out nine before leaving to applause with two outs in the ninth.
“The town has been great,” he said. “People saw it with the standing ovation on my last start. Definitely emotional night. I’ve played there four years, thrown something like 370 innings on that field in these colors and I know I still have more games to play. But that feeling meant a lot.”
Heimlich said he wouldn’t be nervous when he takes the mound in Omaha.
“I’ve been playing this game since I was 8 years old and I’ve been playing the game the way I want to play all season,” he said. “I’m not changing anything because the scenario changes.”