Heavier role lies ahead for Shafer

Justin Shafer spent fall in high school manning the gridiron, leading Lake Wales as the starting quarterback. In spring, he swapped the pigskin for the warmth of a leather glove on the diamond, moving around the infield and to the mound. He thrived, seizing all-state honors in both sports. As a key piece in Florida's baseball program and a year under his belt, he's ready to flash that versatility.

Justin Shafer cracked open his college career last year as a staple in leftfield — a position fairly unfamiliar to the former Highlander.

"You've got to remember, he was an infielder coming out of high school," coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "He hadn't played a whole lot of outfield. He got better as the season went on."

Shafer's still expected to uphold his outfield role yet again this season, but is expected to uphold another position, as well.

The 6-foot-2, 195-pound right-hander was originally recruited as a pitcher for Florida, he dabbled only briefly on the mound last season in six appearances (totaling six innings) with a 4.50 ERA.

When Shafer came to campus, the Gators already flashed plenty of veteran experience in the bullpen for the '12 stretch, including closers Greg Larson, Steven Rodriguez and Austin Maddox. But the drought of the Major League draft has the spot of the go-to closer uncertain this season. According to O'Sullivan, Shafer could be just the ticket.

"He's one guy that we're looking at the end of the game because he's competitive and has good enough stuff to do it," O'Sullivan said. "I'd feel very comfortable with him with a lead on the mound to get the last three outs of the game."

It's the weight of the game resting on his shoulders Shafer said he adores.

"I love being in those situations of having to close out games," Shafer said. "I love being in pressure situations, so if they ask me to do it, I'll do the best I can."

On offense, Shafer opened his debut season at the tail end of the batting order, capping off the season with a .284 batting average in his 162 at-bats. This year, O'Sullivan said he's bumping the sophomore up to the middle of the order.

With his new spot at the core of the offense, the sophomore said he'll have to make some changes at the dish, including handling more off-speed pitches and learning to take those down-the-middle fastballs sooner than he did at the base of the order.

"At the bottom, if you miss one, you might get one other," he said. "But as soon as you miss one, you might not get another one in the middle (of the order)."

However, Shafer and his fellow sophomores sport an edge in handling top-notch pitchers heading into this season with the tough arms the Gators faced in Omaha last summer. Shafer started all seven games in the NCAA tournament finishing with a .360 batting average in his 25 at-bats with nine hits, three doubles and six RBI.

Playing in a gritty Southeastern Conference paired with the experience of the College World Series serves those players with an advantage O'Sullivan dubbed as unparalleled.

"I don't think there's anything that can replace that," he said. "With their experience that they got last year — not only playing in the SEC but having a chance to advance — that does nothing but help their development and help the younger guys, as well. There's no substitute for experience. Certainly, some of those guys have played in some big games."

Those big games helped Shafer during is rout in the prestigious Cape Cod League, where he sported a jersey for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox with fellow sophomore Josh Tobias.

The team made it to Game 3 of the championship series, falling at the clutches of Wareham Gatemen.

"Everyone's best pitchers were SEC guys," Shafer said of his time in the Cape. "I (had already seen) everyone that we faced… most of the guys were SEC guys, so I saw the same people. It wasn't hard adjusting to the pitching."

Shafer's increased responsibilities for the Gators will begin to flash at the start of the season Feb. 15th — the start of a season where the sophomore said he knows what'll be hurled his way.

"There's not going to be anything this year that I haven't seen last year," Shafer said. "So hopefully I'll help the freshmen out since they haven't been through everything yet and help them work through it because I know the struggles I had. Hopefully I can help them with the same things I went through."

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