On Talented Gators, Fontana’s Drive Stands Out

Florida catcher Mike Zunino said he won’t even go near a Ping-Pong table if teammate Nolan Fontana is around.

“I’ve seen him put a whipping on guys,” Zunino said. “If he’s there, I won’t even pick up a paddle.”

Likewise, batters who hit ground balls Fontana’s way can pretty much assume they’re going to be thrown out. A 5-foot-11, 195-pound junior, Fontana has been named the Southeastern Conference’s top defensive shortstop the past two years.

He made 12 errors and had a .960 fielding percentage in 71 starts last season. As a freshman, he started 63 games and made just four errors for a .986 fielding percentage.

“He has as accurate an arm as I’ve ever seen,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “He has an internal clock you can’t teach. He rarely throws below the waist. He just zeroes in on the first baseman’s chest.”

A lefthanded hitter, Fontana excels at small ball, leading the SEC with 52 walks last year and drawing a total of 105 the past two seasons, while striking out just 59 times in his career. He also led the conference in sacrifice flies last season with nine and topped the Gators in total sacrifices (20).

He doesn’t have blazing speed, but he is a smart, aggressive baserunner who led Florida with five triples as a sophomore.

In two years and 472 at-bats, Fontana is a .288/.426/.426 hitter with 27 doubles, seven triples, eight homers, 113 runs and 72 RBIs. Fontana said he gained five pounds of muscle over the summer, and O’Sullivan expects a bit more pop out of his shortstop this year.

“He’s a top-of-the-order type, not afraid to hit with two strikes and accumulate a ton of seven- or eight-pitch at-bats,” O’Sullivan said. “But he’s stronger in his lower half now, and on offensive counts, he has a chance to drive the ball and become a complete hitter.”

Baseball In His Blood

Fontana, who was born in Richardson, Texas, and named after Nolan Ryan, learned baseball from another famous pitcher—his grandfather.

Lew Burdette, a 203-game winner in the majors who passed away in 2007, lived with his daughter and the rest of the Fontana family for the last six years of his life.

“He was a stud—a hard-nosed guy,” Fontana said. “Every night at dinner, he’d have a different story about his life in baseball. He taught me a lot about the game and about life. We had a relationship I didn’t take for granted.”

Burdette was the MVP of the 1957 World Series, when he led the Braves to the only baseball title in Milwaukee history. He also ranks fourth in baseball history in fewest walks among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings, trailing only Hall of Famers Robin Roberts, Carl Hubbell and Juan Marichal.

Fontana’s father Paul said Nolan wears a chain around his neck with Burdette’s No. 33 as a tribute to his grandfather.

“Nolan idolized Lew,” Paul Fontana said. “Lew was rugged. He never understood why modern players needed so much rest.

“Lew’s advice to Nolan was simple: ‘You want to be the best pitcher? Throw strikes.’ And since Lew had been a World Series MVP, Nolan listened.”

Fontana, who now throws strikes to first base instead of home plate, said he feels his grandfather is “still with me now” through their shared passion of baseball.

Strong First Impression

One of Fontana’s major accomplishments was winning the starting shortstop job for USA Baseball’s collegiate national team at the 2010 World University Games in Tokyo, earning a silver medal. (He played second for the team last summer in deference to Arizona State’s Deven Marrero.) During his high school days, he made a name for himself starring for USA Baseball’s 18U national team.

O’Sullivan, who recruited Fontana out of West Orange High in Winter Garden, Fla., said he was more impressed every time he watched his future shortstop play.

“By the third time you see him, you fall in love with him and you know you need him in your program,” O’Sullivan said. “He makes all the routine plays and then—all of a sudden—he goes to his backhand, slides, pops up and makes a great throw.”

Fontana, who has a 3.0 grade-point average, is majoring in youth community sciences and wants a life in baseball after his playing days are over.

“Whether it’s playing, coaching or scouting,” Fontana said, “I can’t imagine being without baseball.”

Fontana pitched a bit in high school—he said his fastball touched 90 mph—but when he couldn’t blow it by hitters consistently, he figured his best chance at a long career in the game was at short.

He said he “beats himself up” after every error and said his added range last season may help explain why his miscues tripled from his phenomenal freshman season.

Fontana wasn’t drafted out of high school—he had told scouts he was committed to playing college ball—but that will change this June.

Fontana said he has given the draft no thought and his focus is on winning the College World Series—which would be the first such title in Gators history. But O’Sullivan believes Fontana has a fine pro career ahead of him when his college days are over.

“I think he stays at shortstop (in pro ball),” O’Sullivan said. “It’s hard to find a youngster with his consistency and his work ethic. I would be shocked if he didn’t play in the majors.”