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LSU clorer Devin Fontenot (28) celebrates the last strike out in the ninth inning of LSU's 6-4 win over UMass-Lowell in the final game of a 3-game series Sunday in LSU's Alex Box Stadium. With the win, LSU swept the series.

A couple weeks ago, LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn reminisced with someone about the careers of college baseball players. They talked about how undeveloped freshmen can turn into trusted seniors within four years, and the conversation made Dunn think about LSU pitcher Devin Fontenot.

Between his freshman year in 2018 and now, Fontenot morphed from an inconsistent reliever into LSU’s undoubted closer. He went from learning about himself and how to manage the emotional waves of baseball to landing on multiple preseason All-American teams and exuding confidence in his abilities. His maturation amazed Dunn. 

“He's probably made one of the biggest progressions of anybody that we've had in the program, as far as I'm concerned,” Dunn said. 

This preseason, Fontenot has impressed coaches and teammates alike with his mentality and command. He throws three pitches for strikes and controls games when he steps on the mound. Coach Paul Mainieri said “absolutely he's our closer.”

LSU expects a remarkable season, and Fontenot has appeared on preseason All-American lists from Collegiate Baseball (second team) and D1 Baseball (first team). He also received first-team preseason All-Southeastern Conference honors, making him the second-most recognized LSU player behind starter Jaden Hill. 

“I haven't caught many big league pitchers,” sophomore catcher Alex Milazzo said, “but they got to be close to him, man.”

The unwavering confidence in Fontenot didn’t always exist. After recording a 6.18 ERA with 15 walks and 44 strikeouts his freshman year, Fontenot went through stretches of success and frustration. 

Early his sophomore year, Fontenot’s teammates challenged him during a team meeting. Mainieri ripped him on the mound as he pulled Fontenot after two batters against Cal. He later told Fontenot it was as hard as he ever challenged a player. Fontenot’s coaches and teammates saw him falling short of his potential. They pushed him.

“This kid has the potential to be a major league pitcher,” Mainieri said at the time. “He’s got a super arm. He’s got a repeatable delivery, and he can throw strikes… I just want to push him through the threshold to make him want to be great, because the sky’s the limit.”

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Fontenot improved, becoming one of LSU’s best relievers. He led the team with seven saves and held opponents to a .180 batting average. He also struggled with his command, walking eight batters and hitting three more in one 5 ⅓ inning-stretch. He seemed to pitch well in important games and struggle in low-pressure situations. He said he lost his “competitive edge” at times.

In the postseason, Fontenot made an almost heroic performance as LSU tried to avoid elimination. In Game 2 of the NCAA Super Regional against Florida State, he pitched a career-high 6 ⅓ innings while striking out 11 batters. He carried LSU as far as he could, collapsing on the mound when the Seminoles scored the game-winning run in extra innings. LSU lost, but Fontenot’s career changed.

“Ever since that game, I made it a point to don't hold back anything and give it your all every game,” Fontenot said. “Sometimes I had to face some challenges and I was trying to figure out why I wasn't pitching as great as I knew I could. It's because I was holding back a little bit.”

Fontenot dominated the next season. In LSU’s shortened 2020 campaign, he recorded a 0.90 ERA with four saves, which ranked third in the SEC. He completed five hitless innings in his final three appearances with two walks and 11 strikeouts, maintaining his edge regardless of the opponent. Fontenot received third-team All-America recognition from Collegiate Baseball. 

For a moment, Fontenot thought his LSU career might end there. He received a call from a major league team in the fifth round of the draft, but when the team picked another player, Fontenot decided to come back to LSU for his senior season. He would’ve only signed for a $25,000 maximum bonus, and the NCAA extended eligibility for all spring-sport athletes.

“I didn't feel like we accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish here,” Fontenot said. “I feel like I still had some things I wanted to leave a legacy on.” 

This preseason, Fontenot has commanded his slider and 95 mph fastball for strikes while working on his changeup to ensure he can control three pitches when the season begins Feb. 19 against Air Force. LSU will count on him to finish games, using the rest of its relievers to reach Fontenot in the final inning. 

Fontenot’s career has spun from uneasy depths to brilliant peaks, and now, he feels steady. He better understands his capabilities and the expectations of LSU’s coaches. Dunn's confident placing him at the back of the bullpen, not only for his skill but his maturity. He has pitched in every situation. His teammates trust him.

“Now when he gets on the mound,” Milazzo said, “he knows he's the guy.”

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com