Freshman Focused on Saturday

The question was an obvious one, and the young pitcher didn't wait for it to be completed before answering. "Are you excited about Sat…?" Those four complete words and a fragment of another came out before the freshman responded smiling and nodding. "Oh, yeah."

Michael Park has been on his own schedule since enrolling at Ole Miss. Or in actuality, his own schedule since last spring. Injury can cause such a situation, and the right-hander has hungrily awaited his chance to take the field again. After more than ten months on the shelf, Park's lengthy delay ends Saturday.

The product from Memphis University School is scheduled to pitch two innings during Ole Miss' first spring intrasquad Saturday at 1 p.m. It will be somewhat of an emotional experience for Park, who has struggled through a stress fracture in his back and five doctors attempting to diagnose it over the course of the past year.

"It will be fun and interesting," said Park, who was a 18-2 during his high school career. "It is my first time against live batters, but it will work out. Being a freshman is tough anyway, and then not having a fall to prepare. I sat behind the plate and watched the hitters, but I have no expectations. We hit 60-something home runs in the fall, and I could just say ‘wow.'"

Park feels good about his progress and classifies his health at basically 100 percent. He completed his third bullpen session since returning and thinks his stamina and velocity are where they need to be. The offspeed pitches and Park's ability to locate are "getting better everyday."

Due to the long layoff, Park is mostly excited about the chance to test himself and get back out there. He planned to work through the pain and finish his high school career, but instead the decision to let the stress fracture heal came early in 2007.

"I pitched one game my senior year, the very first game of the season," Park said. "I was going to try to pitch through it, and they said it wasn't worth it. That I was just going to hurt it worse."

Most injured athletes can channel their restrained energy into rehabilitation and therapy, but Park's ailment didn't work like that. Finding the appropriate course of action was an adventure in itself, and once decided on, all the pitcher could do was hurry up and wait.

Park and his family visited multiple doctors in Memphis and one in St. Louis before traveling to California for an appointment with Dr. Robert Watkins, an orthopedic specialist that has experience working with baseball players.

"I wanted to see him because he knows about pitchers," Park said. "He has worked with Randy Johnson and others. It is a pretty common injury in the pros."

Dr. Watkins ordered Park to rest the back for a considerable amount of time and then follow a rehab plan to get back to playing shape and on the mound.

"The summer was tough also because I was really looking forward to that," Park noted. "It was when my friends from different schools would all play together. Sitting at home doing nothing was miserable. I couldn't do anything. It sounds good, but it was no fun at all."

Rehab finally began two weeks before the fall semester and was a welcomed occasion. Park spent the weekdays prior to school starting in Oxford working with baseball trainer Tony Barnett and would drive back to Memphis on the weekends. The program with Barnett continued all during fall practice, and then Park was finally able to begin throwing during winter break.

"I am pretty much full speed because of the work," Park said. "I did a lot more in the winter than anyone else because I didn't do anything in the fall and didn't need a break.

"The entire thing has been a learning experience. I knew it would be tough, but sitting and watching exactly how good our hitters are, it is eye-opening to see what you are up against. It is a challenge. That is why I came here."

He also came here because of the ties. Park's family has history in Oxford, as his brother, Rob, is a punter on the Rebel football team, and his uncle, Mike, pitched on Ole Miss' last team to make it to the College World Series in 1972.

"There have been tough times, but I love it here," Park said. "My uncle has been very important to me and having my brother here has been nice. Now, I am just ready to go."

Saturday starts an important first few weeks for Park and other freshmen who are hoping to standout and avoid a redshirt season. With the injury in his recent past, Park acknowledges the possibility but doesn't want to let the thought stay in his mind.

"I don't want to consider redshirting, but you never know," Park said. "I have missed a lot already, so you don't want to think about that. Hopefully I will pitch well the next couple weekends."

Either way, the opportunity is back in Park's control. The long road back has ended, and he is days away from touching the mound again.

Is he excited?

Oh yeah, he definitely is.

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