A Triumphant Return
Nine months after reconstructive elbow surgery, Owls senior righthander Mike Ojala is back on the mound
March 23, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
The well of toughness from which Mike Ojala would later draw was stably rooted by the time Ojala received news he didn't want to hear.
In was April 21, 2009, one month and one day after Ojala first experienced discomfort in his right elbow while warming up for the Owls' series opener at Southern Miss. He had planned on leaving the office of Dr. J.P. Bramhall in College Station and driving to Austin to meet his teammates, who were preparing to face regional foe Texas at Disch-Falk Field. Ojala was expecting the best - a bout of severe tendinitis or forearm stiffness - in advance of his meeting with Bramhall but discovered the worst - a tear of his ulnar collateral ligament - and needed a moment to recover from a blow he described as `devastating.'
"We drove to a parking lot afterwards and called a couple of people. And then I actually walked to a parking lot of Home Depot that was right there, sat down and cried to myself," Ojala said. "I cried for a little bit and finally I got up and was like, `What am I so upset about? I can still pitch, and it's not the end of the road.' Right then, I really got over it."
That momentary lapse of self-pity immediately yielded to steely resolve. Ojala began to rely on a toughness he never knew he had. He pitched through the pain on March 20, 2009 at Southern Miss and led the Owls to a 4-3 victory. After missing a handful of starts, Ojala returned to the rotation on April 12, 2009 and allowed one run on four hits and two walks while striking out 10 over five innings in the Owls' 5-4 victory at East Carolina. Ojala did not pitch the weekend after he learned that he would ultimately need Tommy John surgery to reconstruct his UCL, but following his opting to delay the procedure in order to remain an active member of the team, Ojala made successive starts against UCF, UAB, Houston, Sam Houston State and LSU. By the time Ojala took the mound against the Tigers at the Baton Rouge Super Regional, his elbow had little left to give. His pregame Toradol shots could only do so much.
Last June 18, Bramhall operated on Ojala, repaired his UCL, and told Ojala that he could pitch competitively in nine months. Nine months and one day later, Ojala returned to the mound at San Diego, working 1 1/3 perfect innings to cap a comeback that was by definition remarkable.
What does it say of Ojala that he chose to endure frequent shots and debilitating pain in order to stand with his teammates? How does it reflect on Ojala that he turned down the Milwaukee Brewers' contract offer in order to complete a destiny at Rice that remains unknown? What testimonies can those who witnessed Ojala rehab his surgically repaired elbow share about a pitcher who pushed himself to the brink?
"It's one of those situations where the will really kicks in," Owls pitching coach David Pierce said. "He proved to himself as much as to us that he actually had that in him. He was able to overcome it. He really figured out that he was tougher than he is, and that has definitely made him a much tougher pitcher. But it's also given him so much more confidence."
Ojala required 16 pitches to retire the four Toreros he faced last Friday. He doesn't have his pre-surgery velocity on his fastball (which topped out at 88 miles an hour in the week before he was cleared by Bramhall), but Ojala still threw seven fastballs along with eight curveballs and one changeup. The off-speed pitch became a critical component of the repertoire after Ojala returned from his hiatus and helped pitch Rice into the postseason. Ojala solicited input prior to his comeback last year.
His family chimed in, as did Bramhall and Lee Bason, a life coach representing The Flippen Group. Dialogue was extensive from every corner, but ultimately the decision rested with Ojala. Once he committed to a return to the mound, Ojala accepted that he would suffer physical pain for the final three months of the season before encountering the psychological damage that comes with reconstructive elbow surgery.
The elbow irritation he felt during his outings paled in comparison to the excruciating agony he endured in the days after he pitched. Ojala didn't relent. Ojala plummeted to the 34th round of the amateur draft last summer, but he didn't regret his decision to delay the surgical procedure. When he finally succumbed to the knife, Ojala gave his all in facing the long, solitary road to recovery. He turned to a pair of teammates, one past and one present, for examples on how to proceed.
In his first appearance of the 2007 season, Owls junior righthander Bobby Bell ruptured the UCL in his elbow and was sidelined for the remainder of the season. Thirteen months later he was back on the mound at Reckling Park, and he finished that season with such a dominating flourish that it served notice to others of the possibility for a positive recovery from Tommy John surgery. Owls redshirt freshman Anthony Fazio flashed similar moments of brilliance last fall, just nine months after undergoing the same procedure as Bell and Ojala. Fazio is still rounding into competitive form, but the aggression with which he approached rehab served to spark a passion within Ojala to do the same.
"Bobby was definitely the great inspiration because he was the first person to come back and dominate," Ojala said. "Fazio was a huge inspiration to me just because how much bigger his legs have gotten. He's got huge legs now and he worked his butt off. He had a tough time last spring just watching us play, and he finally got in a groove and started working his butt off, and it was so positive to see these gains he was making. I was like, `I want to do that. If he can do that, I can do that.'"
Ojala not only had his memories of Bell and the daily commitment of Fazio to stoke his fire, he relied on his own success while pitching handicapped to serve as validation. In the five starts Ojala made following the discovery of his UCL tear, he averaged less than five innings per appearance but struck out 23 batters in 23 2/3 innings. His ERA (3.04) and WHIP (1.35) were quite respectable given his limitations, and better still, Ojala learned a lesson via his hardship.
Through two seasons as a starter, Ojala had thrived utilizing just two pitches: a fastball that touched 92 miles per hour, and a devastating curveball that was arguably the best breaking pitch on the staff. With his injured elbow sapping the velocity from his fastball, Ojala was forced to rely on a third pitch, his changeup, with greater frequency. The subsequent numbers supported the legitimacy of that pitch selection, and the success Ojala enjoyed altered his view on the art of pitching.
"He knew he couldn't top out at over 88 miles an hour, and when you can't do that you've got to be much more aware of command," Pierce said. "But more than anything, he learned how to throw a changeup.
"So he developed a third pitch because he was injured. He'd always been told that you've got to have three pitches to be a starter, and he had a third pitch, but it wasn't a pitch. It became a pitch because it had to be."
Said Ojala: "It was actually pretty awesome knowing that I was contributing to my team with the limited stuff I had. It was a great confidence booster, especially with where I'm at now coming back."
The Brewers conceded on several fronts in an attempt to get Ojala to sign a professional contract. They acquiesced in allowing Bramhall to perform the procedure and Ojala to rehab at Methodist Hospital while he took classes last fall, moves that swayed Ojala for a spell. But when the two sides failed to agree on a financial package, Ojala gladly returned to Rice, where he felt he had unfinished business to complete.
"Even if we would have come to a number that was acceptable to both of us, I really don't know if I would have taken it," Ojala said. "I'm definitely here for a reason right now, and I'm very, very excited to be back here.
"I didn't want to go into pro ball coming off an injury and not expecting what I used to have. Just being in a new environment would have been weird for me."
When Bramhall established a nine-month window for Ojala to return to action, Ojala committed to meeting that deadline. With his family, Bramhall, Matt Holland from the Rehabilitation Center at Methodist Hospital and Fazio providing varying kicks on the pants, Ojala pressed through the lowest point in his life. Setbacks came and were overcome, and Ojala kept his gaze focused on the end of that nine-month window.
As the calendar turned to 2010, Rice coaches began to openly discuss April 1. The Owls were scheduled to open a Conference USA series against bitter archrival Houston on that date, and Ojala publically noted that series as his target for a return. Privately he maintained his vigilance and remained steadfast in his plan to pitch two weeks earlier.
"That always makes my job easier is to have the opportunity to work with someone like Mike who is extremely diligent and motivated and wants to return," Bramhall said. "When I went into orthopedic surgery, psychiatry or psychology was the farthest thing from my mind. But in dealing with athletes and in dealing with athletes who return to play and getting them back at this level, the psychological aspect is almost as important as the physical aspect as far as returning to the level of confidence they need to compete."
Said Ojala: "This is exactly what I thought would happen, what I wanted to happen, and what I worked my butt off to make happen. When Dr. Bramhall cut my arm open that day and said, `You'll be back in nine months,' that's what I've believed since then. It's not surprising to me at all."
The outing against the Toreros represented a first step for Ojala. He has to develop his stamina, sharpen the feel for his breaking ball and off-speed pitch, and slowly regain his velocity on his fastball. Ojala will likely pitch against the Longhorns when the Owls visit Disch-Falk Field for the first time since that fateful night last April, but he will be on a strict pitch count. Bramhall and the Rice coaching staff remain in close contact on the parameters facing Ojala, but given the results of his first appearance, all parties remain optimistic that Ojala will reclaim his all-conference form and perhaps stabilize the Owls' shaky pitching staff.
That dream is far from impossible. The obstacles Ojala aims to hurdle in the coming months Bell has already overcome. His triumph resonates.
"After such a long and mentally stressful rehabilitation, the triumph of finally returning for me was a mix of relief, excitement and satisfaction," Bell said. "The hours upon hours of physical therapy and essentially teaching myself to throw again were all validated the second I threw the first pitch in the game. Being able to do what I love again was worth every second of pain, work, stress and time that is associated with a Tommy John rehab. The success that followed was indescribable.
"While I never expected to return to full strength so quickly, I can attribute it to my mental approach of giving it everything you've got. While it may seem cliché, the adage `play every game like it's your last, because someday it will be' truly applies. There was a point I feared I may never return to a mound, but because of this experience I take that saying to heart."