SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Jorge De La Rosa has always struggled with his emotions.
Sometimes the fiery persona on the mound helps him as the Colorado Rockies' top left-handed starter. When it would work against him, he'd turn to his mother, Juana, in his native Mexico.
"She motivated me all the time, especially when I had bad games," De La Rosa said. "The first or second person I called was her."
Juana had cancer last year. She had surgery to remove a tumor in November and the prognosis was good. Then things took a sudden bad turn, and Juana died just before the start of spring training.
It's left a void, just as the 32-year-old De La Rosa prepares to make his first opening-day start Monday at Miami as he enters the last year of his contract.
"It's the hardest thing that's happened in all my life," he said. "But I have to keep doing my thing and do my best for her. I think she'll feel proud of me if I do good."
De La Rosa's mom provided support in his rocky recovery from elbow reconstruction surgery in 2011. It included several setbacks that limited him to 13 starts in two years.
"There are a lot of things in your mind," De La Rosa said. "One of the things was I didn't know if I would be able to pitch again or not."
He did, and was better than anyone could have hoped. De La Rosa went 16-6 with a career-best 3.49 ERA for a 74-88 team in 2013. What's even more impressive was De La Rosa was an MLB-best 10-0 after Colorado losses and was 10-1 with a 2.76 ERA at hitter-friendly Coors Field.
"Hopefully, he's helping change the reputation of pitching in our park," manager Walt Weiss said. "He's a guy that's turned his career around in our park."
The 6-foot-1 De La Rosa uses mostly a fastball-changeup mix to keep hitters off-balance. He struck out 112 in just under 168 innings last year.
His .618 winning percentage (55-34) is the highest in franchise history among pitchers with at least 50 starts.
"He can throw his changeup at absolutely any time in the count," Weiss said. "It keeps hitters off his fastball. He's got a good breaking ball that he can throw to lefties and righties. He's got a three-pitch mix and he can throw them all at any time. I think that's one of his greatest assets."
Yet De La Rosa still struggles to control himself when things go wrong. In a poor spring training start last week, he had numerous communication issues with catcher Wilin Rosario and seemed distracted.
"It's hard for me to stay calm sometimes," said De La Rosa, who is quiet and reserved off the field. "I have to work on those things. I know it doesn't look good on the mound. I know I have to control my emotions to do my best for this team."
De La Rosa was sharp in his final spring tuneup Wednesday, allowing just three hits with seven strikeouts in six shutout innings against San Francisco. He showed the form that left no doubt De La Rosa is the ace of the staff, especially with right-hander Jhoulys Chacin sidelined with a shoulder injury.
De La Rosa is also slimmer after changing his diet as he spent the offseason with his wife and children in Nuevo Leon.
"He worked really hard this offseason. He came into camp in really good shape," Weiss said. "There's no reason to not make him the guy.
"He deserves it. He's been a great pitcher for us, a great pitcher in our park. He's put himself in position to be the opening-day starter."
It's a milestone in De La Rosa's difficult career that started when he was signed by Arizona as an amateur free agent out of Guadalajara in 1998. He made his big league debut for Milwaukee in 2004 and was a part of Colorado's last playoff team in 2009.
Now De La Rosa is an ace for the first time.
His mother, who last attended one of his starts in September in Denver, would no doubt be proud.
"She always gave me good support. I miss her for that," De La Rosa said. "But I know she's in my heart. I know she's always with me."