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Oczypok bounces back from UCL surgery

CW | Layton Dudley

Elliott Propes

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But then, Mike Oczypok was cut from the University of Alabama baseball team. He came all the way from Pennsylvania to accomplish this goal and he had failed, but Mike refused to believe this was 
the end.

“He didn’t give up at all. There was no quit,” his brother, Alex, said. “He went up to the summer league and did pretty well and had better luck the next year.”

Not only did Mike make the team the next year, he began to see important innings for the Crimson Tide. After pitching mostly midweek games during the regular season, Mike got a start against No. 2 LSU in the SEC tournament. Mike was a strike short of a complete game, limiting the Tigers to just three runs.

“I think Mike proved to us coming back and making it through another walk-on tryout that he had something to him,” pitching coach Dax Norris said. “I called him up to the front of the bus and told him, ‘You got LSU tomorrow,’ and he said, ‘Great,’ very confidently. He’s a guy that is very confident and has a belief in what he does and it’s worked out well.”

Mike then made his first start in a NCAA regional against Savannah State and blanked the team over seven innings. Alex thought he’d never see his brother pitch against a team like LSU, but he knew his brother was a hard worker.

“After I think it was his sophomore year, he came home for winter break for a little while,” Alex said. “I remember we would go to LA Fitness together. He would work so hard. I just remember it would be up tempo, quick, quick, quick, and it was just incredible he would just keep grinding and I was like dying.”

Mike had made his way to important innings, and he had impressed the coaching staff. Things were going well, and he was ready to take on a bigger role the next season. Then came another setback.

“Two years ago, Feb. 1, 2014, I just felt a pop,” Mike said. “It just happened one day in a scrimmage two weeks before the season. I had surgery about six weeks later after that. I tried to recover from there and then in October [2014] I felt another tweak and they again didn’t know what exactly was wrong. So again, in December [2015], I had surgery again.”

Mike underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 after tearing his UCL, and as he tried to recover, he faced more problems that required extra surgery. As a result, Mike missed two full seasons with Alabama. He received a medical redshirt for one of the seasons. Today, Mike is a fifth-year senior, but he is a redshirt junior eligibility wise.

“After he had his surgeries, he always seemed to be home, and it was hard for him to move after his second one because they took [muscle] from his knee,” Alex said. “So we helped him move and brought him food and stuff if he needed it. I usually wouldn’t talk baseball with him at all. I usually would talk about other things because not only is baseball a big part of his life, he does a lot of other things too.”

Another setback came for Mike and his dream, but again, he stayed optimistic. He knew this wasn’t the end.

“It’s difficult, but it’s not as hard as everyone makes it out to be because I love baseball. It’s my passion. I just wanted to be back out there with the team,” Mike said. “Having a family that really supported me and supported my dreams has helped tremendously.”

Mike has two brothers on campus now. Mike is the oldest, while John is a junior and Alex is a freshman. Mike said his brothers were always there for him. He said, John who lives with him, would throw with him when he needed he needed somebody. His other brother, Alex, was still in high school the majority of the time he was recovering. Alex hated seeing his brother suffer the injury, but he said he relished the time he got to spend with Mike and learned a lot from him while he was ailing.

“It’s hard to come back from two [arm surgeries], but you can do it. It says a lot about Mike, his character and he persevered through it,” Alex said. “I’m proud of him for that and he’s a good role model because he just keeps grinding regardless of the circumstances.”

Mike made his way through it, and was finally healthy again. Then on Feb. 20 against Maryland almost three years later, he threw a strike, the first since the Savannah State game in 2013.

“The first time [back] off the mound is such a great feeling,” Mike said. “It was just surreal to take it all in and look around the park and see all the fans in this brand new stadium.”

Even though he missed all of fall practice, Mike came out of the gate playing fairly well at the start of the season. His first pitches against live batters were not until January, so he began with some bullpen work to start slow. He was quickly thrown in the mix when starter Nick Eicholtz suffered a small injury that would keep him out for a couple of weeks. Mike made his first start this past weekend, throwing five innings and striking out six. He only gave up one run and earned his second win of the season. He has 1.69 ERA right now, and coach Mitch Gaspard said there is a good chance Mike earns another start this weekend against Houston with Eicholtz missing again.

Mike is back, and he always knew he would be. So he got cut from the team. He could still come back the next season. Then, he had to have surgery. That didn’t shift his focus. The third setback, one would think, should be the charm to end it all, but not for Mike. He knew that he wasn’t at the end. There was more baseball to play.

“I have such a passion for baseball. I wasn’t going to let an injury affect the way I looked at baseball. I really wanted to be back,” Mike said. “Were there days that were tougher? Absolutely, as any recovery would be. I couldn’t throw some days and it was frustrating, but I always knew the goal was to get back on the field with these guys and go do it again.”

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Oczypok bounces back from UCL surgery