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Ojala to travel with team despite injury, aims for April comeback

By Jonathan Myers     2/18/10 6:00pm

A college baseball pitcher in his senior year often experiences an unfair stigma from his status. To the casual observer, being a senior starter implies that you were either passed over during the previous year's Major League Baseball draft or that you maintain an insignificant role on the pitching staff, willing to resign yourself to another season of sunflower seeds and chewing gum in the bullpen. But for right-handed pitcher Mike Ojala, the fact that he's a senior has few of these connotations. Indeed, the moniker of "senior" belies the immense talent he has exhibited over the three years he has worn a Rice uniform.

Even after dealing with elbow problems that limited him to 13 appearances in 2009, Ojala was still playing well enough to be drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 34th round of the MLB draft last June. Shortly after the Owls were eliminated by Louisiana State University in last season's NCAA Super Regional, Ojala underwent Tommy John surgery, a common procedure for pitchers that replaces a damaged ligament in the throwing elbow. Ojala's return is scheduled for April at the earliest, meaning he would miss at least half of this upcoming season and giving him a smaller chance to improve his stack. By signing with the Brewers, Ojala would not only have received a sizable signing bonus and minor league contract, but he also would have been able to undergo rehab under the watchful eye of team doctors with a wealth of experience in dealing with Tommy John patients.

But the Aug. 17 signing deadline came and went without the Houston native's signature, as Ojala decided to remain an Owl for another year.

"When it came down to it, I just enjoyed school too much and enjoyed this team and program," Ojala said. "I really didn't want to go into a professional organization hurt. I'm really comfortable here and have great people to help me rehab. It was the right decision."

Ojala had help from his family and doctor in order to make his best decision.

"Everything's in Houston," Ojala said. "My family's here, and it was a hard time in my life and I didn't want to go away from something that was comfortable and secure."

While the 22-year-old will not resume his role in the weekend rotation for a third straight year until later this season, if at all, he accompanied the team on their flight to Palo Alto, Calif., yesterday in order to fill a leadership role in the dugout.

Ojala presented the idea of traveling with the team to Sunken Diamond stadium to Head Coach Wayne Graham, who liked the proposal too much to pass up.

"I presented it to Coach Graham back in January, and he didn't say yes or no, just that he'd talk to the other coaches, and ended up coming to the decision to say yes," Ojala said. "I want to be with the team as much as possible in whatever time period is between now and when I get back to pitching."

Ojala has had a largely successful rehab thus far and was pleasantly surprised to find the surgery had left his devastating three-pitch arsenal intact.

"Coming back, I was very, very anxious to throw my curveball, since I throw it really hard, but in the last few weeks it's felt great and has felt best on my elbow, which is kind of funny," he said.

While Ojala's senior leadership as the most decorated pitcher on the Rice roster will be invaluable - he leads the team with 12 career wins and has a career 3.52 ERA in 133 innings - his return to the hill will be even more appreciated, though his role has yet to be determined.

"What role I have when I come back is totally up to Coach Graham's discretion and what he wants to use me for," Ojala said. "I just want to pitch. I don't care if it's for an inning, an out, whatever he wants to use me for.

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