Michael Rocha wins final homestand
It wasn't really an end; there are still more games to be played. But Friday marked another milestone in a career full of them: Michael Rocha's final regular-season home start.
And, depending on what the NCAA bracket looks like when it is released on Memorial Day, it might have been the Oklahoma ace's last time taking the mound at L. Dale Mitchell Park.
That fact wasn't lost on Rocha. "I was really nervous," Rocha said. "It was worse than a normal start. I just kept thinking about it and having to remind myself to breathe."
The cool, calm and collected senior proved he has some acting chops -- both pitching coach Mike Bell and head coach Sunny Golloway said they didn't detect a difference in their Friday night guy.
"I think he gets a little nervous before every start; a lot of very good pitchers do," Golloway said. "But then he settles in and is fine."
Rocha was more than fine Friday. He turned in a complete game -- his fifth this season, sixth for his career -- in a 6-2 win over New Mexico. Rocha (10-2) gave up just seven hits in nine innings of work after taking a perfect game into the sixth inning.
The win moved Rocha into sole possession of third place on Oklahoma's career wins list, displacing Ray Hayward. He trails former first-round draft picks and major leaguers Bob Shirley and Mark Redman.
"That says it all," Golloway said. "Rocha won't be a first-round draft pick; we know that. But he epitomizes everything we want our program to be. He came in with talent, worked hard and got better."
Golloway said that if Rocha continues to win through the end of the regular season, Big 12 tournament and first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, Shirley's record of 31 wins could be in jeopardy even before the College World Series. But Rocha's success on the mound is only one reason that the team captain and Golden Spikes candidate is revered by his teammates and coaches.
"I've seen him evolve," said Bell, whose first year on Oklahoma's staff coincided with Rocha's freshman year. "He's done everything we've asked him to do, and over four years, we've asked him to do a lot. His experience here has molded him into the experienced veteran he is. The season speaks volumes about him as a player and about the program."
Like most players, Rocha has seen his share of ups and downs during his years in Norman. But a player who pitched a two-hit shutout of Tennessee at the Minute Maid Classic as a freshman clearly always had talent. Oklahoma's coaches have helped him develop consistency.
"Oklahoma means everything to me; the coaches taught me to grow up and molded me to who I am today," Rocha said. "I owe everything to OU and the coaches." The feeling is mutual.
"He leads by example in the classroom, in workouts, in the weight room, with conditioning," Bell said. "He'll give advice to the other pitchers on certain hitters and situations. That's always a great asset to have."
Rocha is attempting to savor his senior season.
"The past few years, I really didn't think too much about the seniors' final games," said the Buda, Texas, native. "But now that I went through it, it meant a lot to me. I really care about the team, and I realize now how much I took for granted."
But he's not looking for a toast from his teammates right now.
"The next few weeks are about winning," Rocha said. "We're holding off on the hugs and celebration 'til we get to Omaha. That will make it that much more special."
Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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