Time away from the field helps Rice ace Jon Duplantier paint all the corners

Batters who face Rice’s Jon Duplantier see a more consistent pitcher with a tighter delivery than they faced two years ago. What they don’t see is the appreciation and perspective that a year away from the game provide, qualities that he believes make him a better competitor and person.

Duplantier established himself as the Owls’ ace and a potential first-round Major League Baseball draft pick, following a sophomore year in which shoulder trouble sidelined him and forced him to re-evaluate his priorities.

“The biggest thing (I learned) was that there’s more to life than just baseball,” Duplantier said. “I mean, baseball is a huge part of my life. I love baseball, I love competing. But having to sit out for those eight months, not being able to compete, not being able to play baseball, it made me do other things and appreciate other things that I’d been taking for granted, such as relationships off the field, and on the field, for that matter. Finding happiness and peace away from the baseball field — where most of my happiness, a lot of it came from there. But now I’m able to kind of separate my happiness and baseball performance.”

Duplantier is an intelligent, thoughtful chap with a world of potential. Baseball America last month listed him as the top pitcher in Conference USA and the No. 47 prospect in the upcoming June draft. Baseball Draft Report recently projected him as a top-20 pick.

He cannot escape the chatter, but does his best to tune out the noise and to ignore the platoon of scouts and radar guns at his outings.

“It’s hard not to hear it,” Duplantier said. “It just comes up in conversation more than people realize, but I try to stay out of it. That’s something I really can’t influence. I just try to go out there every week, prepare for the next game and take it one step at a time. I’d like to grade my performance this year partly on how the team does, so I’m just trying to help our team get Ws.”

Rice (24-11, 12-3 C-USA) has won 15 of 17 and is tied with Southern Miss atop the conference, despite the fewest runs and second-fewest hits. They’ve excelled thanks to a pitching staff with the second-best ERA in the conference (2.85) and that’s allowed more than three runs just twice during its current run.

Duplantier is at the center of the surge. He carries a modest 4-3 record, but many of his other stats are eye-catching. He has a 2.73 ERA, and opponents are batting just .198 against him. He has 77 strikeouts in 62.2 innings — both tops in Conference USA — and a better than 3-to-1 ratio of strikeouts to walks.

He threw a complete game gem in a 3-1 win against Old Dominion on March 25. He struck out 11, walked one and allowed just three hits. Against Central Florida on March 4, he struck out 14 and walked two in eight innings, giving up just two runs in a 4-3 win.

“Jon’s stuff is undeniable,” longtime Rice coach Wayne Graham said. “He’s a little inconsistent with his control, which is understandable since he didn’t pitch last year. He’s working his way back toward being one of the best college pitchers in the country. He’s probably there now. If he’s not, he’s just a tick away.”

Duplantier, an athletic 6-4, 225-pound right-hander from Katy, Texas, has a fastball that tops out at 96 miles per hour and is routinely in the low 90s. He throws a two-seam and four-seam fastball. The two-seamer, Graham said, has such movement that it’s nearly unhittable when he can control it.

He is more consistent with his curveball and gets batters to chase it because he’s improved at throwing it with the same motion as his fastball. He has a developing changeup that he throws just often enough to give hitters another pitch to consider.

Duplantier said that he has improved “10 fold” from two years ago, when he made the C-USA All-Freshman team and worked himself into the starting rotation the second half of the season.

“I feel like I’m stronger,” he said. “I feel like I’m more cognizant about pitching. I think clearer on the mound. I feel like I execute a ton better. I feel like the pitches I throw now, compared to my freshman year, they should be better, and they help our team more than the pitches I threw as a freshman.”

Duplantier is grateful to pitch again after being sidelined all of last year. He felt soreness in his shoulder during the fall of 2014, which persisted into early 2015. Doctors and trainers eventually determined last spring that certain muscles didn’t properly engage during his delivery, which caused inflammation and pain.

He was frustrated at being unable to compete, unable to contribute on the field.

“Along with the frustration,” he said, “for a long time I wasn’t really sure what was going on with my shoulder. So there’s fear of the unknown. There’s a bunch of different thoughts on what was going on with me. There was never any certainty until late in the (2015) season, and a bunch of fear and frustration on my end.”

Duplantier didn’t require surgery, and benefited from rest. He tweaked his delivery and incorporated different exercises tailored to his pitching motion. Graham said that Duplantier’s delivery was at times a bit exaggerated — “flinging it” he called it — and contributed to the shoulder problems. When he tightened his motion, he actually improved both velocity and consistency.

Frustrated as Duplantier was, he used the time away from baseball constructively. For one, he said that his grade point average rose considerably.

“It showed me that there are things, like schoolwork, that I could be putting more time into, I could be putting more effort into,” he said. “Not only can I flourish on the baseball field, but I can also flourish in the classroom and in the community.”

Duplantier made an effort to connect with younger players, helping them navigate both baseball and college life.

“I tried to see if I could help somebody not only become a better baseball player while I couldn’t play,” he said, “but just really learn to enjoy the game a little bit more.”

Duplantier gradually worked his way back toward full strength last summer, overcoming hurdles that were as much mental as physical. He accepted occasional soreness as simply a by-product of his work, rather than a physical setback. He is pain-free, stronger than ever, and aims to help the Owls return to the NCAA playoffs.

“I feel really good,” he said. “The weather’s starting to warm up a little bit. Classes are starting to wind down. Not only am I feeling good on the baseball field, but every day I wake up and life is good.”

Above and middle: Photos courtesy Rice Athletics Dept.

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