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Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --LSU starting pitcher Jared Poche pitches in the first inning of LSU's NCAA Super Regional game vs Coastal Carolina Sunday in LSU's Alex Box Stadium.

Patrick Dennis

LSU’s “bulldog” is back.

Jared Poché, a 14th-round pick of the San Diego Padres, will return to LSU for his senior season, giving the Tigers the top two pieces of their 2016-17 pitching rotation.

The decision comes as a surprise to many — including Poché himself — who thought his junior season, an inconsistent, 9-4 campaign that finished with a flurry, would be his final one in Baton Rouge.

"LSU’s always been a dream of mine," Poché said Wednesday. "I played here for three great years. Originally, my plan was to play here for three years at LSU and sign, but it didn’t work out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to come back to LSU, we’ve got a lot of guys returning and will probably be preseason ranked top four or five. We’re going to be one of the projected eight teams in Omaha. I definitely want to be a part of something special like that.”

Mainieri gave Poché, from Lutcher, the opening night start against Cincinnati in February, in part, because the coach said at the time it was “probably” Poché’s last collegiate season.

Mainieri maintained throughout the MLB draft process that the team would “likely” lose both Poché and classmate Jake Fraley to professional baseball after the season.

Fraley, the 77th overall pick by the Tampa Bay Rays, signed a contract.

After an unforeseen draft week tumble and negotiations that dragged late into the signing period, Poché did not sign.

“All summer, I kind of felt it was going to work out. But as of late, I came to the realization and came to accept it," Poché said. "I’m relieved; I’m happy; and I’m ready to get to work. Ready to roll.”

Widely projected as a top-10-round selection, Poché stumbled into the 14th round with a “number in mind.” The Padres were unable to meet it, he said — the impetus for his decision, which dragged close to the July 15 signing deadline.

“I was deadset on thinking that only because I knew Jared really wanted to sign," Mainieri said Wednesday. "But it’s a reminder every year of the unpredictability of draft day and signing bonuses and the way pro ball works ... Now that the dust has settled and he’s made his decision, believe me, I’m ecstatic about him being a part of the program."

Poché, a Freshman All-American and a three-year starter, posted the lowest ERA (3.35) for any of the Tigers’ weekend starters this season. His 27 career wins put him 11 behind Scott Schultz for the most in an LSU career, a record attainable with one more season.

A left-hander who topped at 90-92 mph with his fastball to pair with a curveball and changeup, Poché rarely overpowered Tigers’ opponents.

Instead, he endeared himself to fans and coaches as a dependable “bulldog,” pitching his best with men on base and when his team was in dire straits.

He stranded 76.37 percent of runners on base this season — the most among LSU’s regular starting pitchers.

Poché’s final two outings this season perhaps personify him best. Pitching out of the bullpen for just the second time in his collegiate career, the southpaw stabilized LSU’s 5-2, Baton Rouge regional championship game against Rice with six shutout innings, retiring the first 16 batters he faced on three days rest.

In a 4-3, season-ending loss against eventual national champion Coastal Carolina one week later in the Baton Rouge super regional, Poché was masterful across a 5.1-inning start where the three earned runs he allowed were more the product of fundamental, defensive miscues than his shortcomings.

"I just remember thinking ‘This will probably be my last game to play at LSU,'" Poché said.

There will be more.

“God’s plan is greater than my plan," Poché said. "I just trust what he has in store for me and make the most of it.”

Poché’s decision momentarily allays a bit of concern following Jake Latz’s abrupt transfer two weeks ago. Latz, the highly touted redshirt freshman, was widely expected to contend for a vacated spot in the LSU rotation, much like he did this past fall before another elbow setback hindered progress.

Instead, the Tigers will relish Poché’s return, alongside ace Alex Lange, closer Hunter Newman and eight of nine position players from last season's team.

“Jared told me ‘Coach, you don’t have to worry about me, I’m all in. And I’m going to be working harder than I ever have, and I’m totally excited about being back,'" Mainieri said.

Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter, @Chandler_Rome