LSU pitcher Devin Fontenot simply wasn’t ready to let go.
Not after last year’s coronavirus-shortened 17-game junior season with only 10 innings of work.
When it came time for a truncated five-round 2020 major league draft, Fontenot took it as a sign when he was passed over by an unspecified team that previously expressed interest in taking him in the final round.
“I had a call in the fifth round and when that happened, I got excited as any kid would,” Fontenot said. “It didn’t work out the way I thought it was going to work out. Whenever they chose somebody else it was obvious to me that I wanted to go back to school. You have a chip on your shoulder, you want to come back and accomplish more things. Put your name out there, help your team. It made it easier.”
Motivation to return as a senior wasn’t hard to find.
Fontenot returns as the centerpiece of LSU’s relief pitching staff as its closer. One last year also represents the chance for him to enjoy a season with the most talented team he’s ever been on while playing a major role that could catapult him up the MLB draft boards.
LSU’s pitching staff, which had one of the nation’s lowest ERA’s (2.38) last season, has a multitude of strengths because of the sheer numbers of its 20-man staff going into the 2021 season opener Feb. 19 against Air Force at 7 p.m. at Alex Box Stadium.
The Tigers’ projected frontline starters in Jaden Hill, Landon Marceaux and A.J. Labas have garnered their share of headlines But it’s a staff that has other essential pieces in the middle and end who can close out the back end of a ball game.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri identified Fontenot in the fall as his top candidate to lock down such an integral position, one in which he whetted his appetite during the 2020 season and showed plenty promise along the way.
“I haven’t been told which role I’m going to be pitching in this year,” Fontenot said. “I’d be willing to bet I’ll continue throwing at the end of games, in those situations I’ve been pitching in the past.”
Even after a small sample size, Fontenot is one of LSU’s few players to be recognized for his efforts from a year ago, being selected to the Collegiate Baseball’s third team All-American squad.
Fontenot was 1-0 with four saves (third in the SEC) and a 0.90 ERA. He struck out 17 batters in seven appearances covering 10 innings with a win and a pair of saves over his final three appearances. During that stretch, he pitched five scoreless innings with two walks and 11 strikeouts against Southeastern Louisiana, UMass-Lowell and South Alabama.
“Every team that I’ve been on you’ve got to earn the trust of your teammates and coaches, and I think I’ve done that since I’ve been here,” Fontenot said. “It makes it nice knowing they have your back. They have that confidence in you. I give thanks to God for the ability I have to do it. When coach challenges me, when teammates challenge me, I can meet the challenge in a timely manner instead of not meeting it for a while.”
Fontenot, a 6-foot-1 right-hander, arrived from The Woodlands, Texas with a penchant for fulfilling a variety of roles that have shifted from being a starter to a relief pitcher.
He started in two of his 29 appearances in 2018 with a 3-1 record, 44 strikeouts and 6.18 ERA in 39.1 innings.
Fontenot emerged during the team’s run to the SEC tournament championship game with three appearances over a four-day span against Mississippi State, South Carolina and Florida, allowing two hits, no walks and striking out three. He later picked a win in relief against San Diego State in the NCAA regional where he yielded a run on two hits and struck out four.
His sophomore season in ’19 solidified his role as LSU’s closer. He had a 5-4 record, seven saves, 54 strikeouts in 51 innings and .180 opponents’ batting average over 28 appearances.
With a season that reached a NCAA super regional at home, Fontenot appeared in five of his team’s 10 postseason games with 19 strikeouts in 15 innings.
Among his postseason highlights were a relief win over South Carolina in the SEC tournament and a save against Southern Mississippi in the NCAA regional championship in which he fired two shutout innings with no hits and two strikeouts.
His highwater moment, though, came in an elimination game against Florida State in game 2 of the NCAA super regional in which LSU trailed 3-0 after the second inning.
The Tigers scored twice in the sixth when Fontenot entered in the bottom of the sixth inning and kept the Seminoles scoreless long enough for his team to tie the game at 4-4.
Fontenot surpassed a couple of milestones in his relief appearance, never having thrown more than 60 pitches or worked more than five innings before. He lasted 6.1 innings and threw 96 pitches, the final one that was deposited in the outfield with runners and second and third for the game-winning RBI in a 5-4 heart-wrenching loss.
“That was definitely a turning point for me,” Fontenot said of effort that produced 11 strikeouts. “Just to go out there and leave it all on the line every game. Ever since that game, I just made it a point not to hold back anything. You’ve got to give it your all every game because sometimes I had to face some challenges and figure out why I wasn’t pitching as good as I knew I could.”
Fellow senior Matthew Beck returns for a fifth-year of eligibility and represents the team’s most experienced relief pitcher outside of Fontenot. But with the game on the line, the Tigers expect Fontenot to close, a role he relishes.
After adding a change-up to his repertoire, Fontenot looks to recapture the same form had making multiple appearances in pressure-packed SEC series during his sophomore year. It’s the kind of moments he envisioned returning for this season and helping lead his team back to the summit in college baseball.
“I didn’t want to end my time here at LSU after 2.1 years,” said Fontenot, whose career record is 9-5 with 11 saves and 115 strikeouts. “What made it easy to come back was since the draft was shortened. I didn’t feel like we accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish here.
“I felt like I still had some things I wanted to leave a legacy on. Just wanted to come back and help this team and be a big part of this team this year and also finish up the degree.”