TAMPA — Lazer Collazo made it simple for Randy Fontanez: USF's pitching coach wasn't leaving the recruit's Oviedo home until he got a commitment.
The visit lasted long enough that Fontanez's mother made the coach dinner, and midway through the ribs, steak, beans and rice, Collazo stopped eating. He wasn't going to finish his plate until Fontanez accepted his offer to pitch for the Bulls.
"He stayed for three or four hours," Fontanez said. "It worked. I'm here."
Two years later, Collazo has an ace to show for his persistence.
Is the 6-foot-1, 193-pound sophomore right-hander the best pitcher in the Big East? The Bulls and the rest of the league will find out tonight, when the conference's postseason honors are handed out on his 20th birthday.
More important, Fontanez has a chance to prove himself Tuesday night, when he takes the mound for USF in the opening round of the Big East tournament.
Armed with a 6-2 league record and the lowest ERA in league play (2.69), Fontanez has opened all but one league series for the Bulls, showing the kind of stuff to make you insist on sticking around for a while.
"The thing with Randy is when we go out on Friday night (for a series opener), everybody knows we have a shot to win," Bulls coach Lelo Prado said. "I think Randy should be the pitcher of the year in this conference. There's no doubt in my mind. He's just been great, and there's nobody with the numbers he's put up."
USF (32-22, 18-9 Big East) likely must win the double-elimination tournament to make the NCAA field. That meant enough that Prado didn't start Fontanez in a crucial weekend series at Louisville — using him for two innings of relief — to give him optimal rest for Tuesday.
"It's pretty exciting. We expect nothing less than coming in first in the tournament," Fontanez said. "The season is a long haul, but the tournament is what really matters. That's what we need to focus on."
The Bulls dropped five of their last six conference games, surrendering first place to Louisville on Friday. So Fontanez's challenge is to get USF back on track. One of the things Collazo liked about him in high school was his intensity on the mound, his ability to pitch better in pressure situations.
"Every time they'd get a hit off him, he'd just attack even more," Collazo said. "I saw something in him. More than anything was his attitude. I don't care if a kid throws 85 mph. If he has an attitude that he's going to come in and attack, that's what I want."
Prado's first look at Fontanez at Oviedo High was as an outfielder. But when the skinny righty came in to pitch for an inning, the Bulls coach knew he had found something.
"He threw an inning, and it was 'Oh, my God,' " said Prado, who saw a young Mariano Rivera in Fontanez's slight frame. "This guy has a great arm. He's loose, kind of skinny where we could put some weight on him.
"But he lives across the street from UCF. I mean, you're looking at UCF from his house. So I was like, 'Are you sure we've got a shot at this guy?' We told him 'We're going to build this program around you,' and everything has worked out."
UCF, it turned out, was too close to home, but USF was just right. Fontanez was thrown right in as a freshman, starting 13 games and going 5-3 with team highs in innings and strikeouts plus the team's second-best ERA at 3.54. He has added 25 pounds since coming to USF, helping his stamina and strength.
Collazo calls Fontanez's best pitch a "BP fastball," and while that stands for batting practice, it just means it's a little slower but with pinpoint control. He'll throw 86-87 mph, working both sides of the plate.
Fontanez, 6-3 with a 3.16 ERA overall, had a Big East-best four complete games in eight Big East starts, lasting into the seventh in all but one. A strong outing Tuesday could be huge for the Bulls. And if USF can get to Saturday's championship game, Prado and Collazo could turn to their ace.
"Randy knows what he's got to do, knows his routine," Collazo said.
"I just give him the ball, and let's go."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346.