Shafer leads onslaught of fiery UF freshmen

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida’s 11-inning victory over North Florida on Tuesday night was a typical example of what has happened throughout the season.

The Gators got good pitching -- especially from the bullpen -- and veteran catcher and reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Mike Zunino came through with the game-winning hit. But several true freshmen made huge contributions.

Left fielder Justin Shafer drove in one run on a double, he perfectly executed two sacrifice bunts, and threw out a runner at third base. Third baseman Josh Tobias snared a hard grounder that took a bad hop and was able to get a forced out to keep UNF out of a big inning.

Those plays were generally forgotten in the euphoria of the walk-off victory, but they have been happening all season. UF’s freshmen, especially the trio of Shafer, Tobias and second baseman Casey Turgeon, have been a huge part of the Gators’ success.

“I’m not surprised with how they’re doing,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I’m pleased, but I think that we were hoping they would do what we thought they would do.”

The fifth-ranked Gators (36-13) weren’t expecting Shafer to be as much of a contributor on the field as he has been, but a season-ending ACL injury to center fielder Tyler Thompson in mid-March changed that. O’Sullivan moved left fielder Daniel Pigott to center and Shafer started the next four games in left field. Vickash Ramjit started the next 11 games there, but O’Sullivan went back to Shafer and he has started 14 of the last 15 games.

Shafer played the outfield and infield at Lake Wales (Fla.) High School, but made his mark as a hitter and pitcher. He’s still adjusting to being a full-time outfielder, but he got his first outfield assist by throwing out a UNF runner trying to go from first to third on a single to left field.

“A lot of practice,” Shafer said when asked what has helped him feel more comfortable as the season has progressed. “Pig’s been helping me a lot out there. Vick helps me a lot, just giving me tips, trying to get me to be better, just do the best I can out there.”

Shafer’s RBI on Tuesday night was his 17th of the season, and he’s hitting .286 with five doubles. In his last four games he’s 6-for-13 with three RBIs.

“The coaches have been working with me a lot trying to get me back in the groove of hitting,” Shafer said. “I would say right now I’m pretty confident up there hitting and I’d like to keep it that way.

“That’s the most important thing: being confident and knowing that you can hit whoever they put out there. Baseball’s more of a mental game than physical, so if you are confident up there most of the time you’re going to put a good swing on the ball.”

Tobias has started 26 games at third base and is hitting .267, which includes driving in the game-winning run against Kentucky last Friday. He has committed a team-high seven errors, but only two have come in UF’s 24 SEC games.

Turgeon has started 48 of UF’s 49 games at second base and is second on the team with eight stolen bases. He’s hitting .274, and his 18 RBIs rank second among freshmen. He is coming off a big weekend against Kentucky, when he hit .400 and scored the winning run in one game to earn SEC Freshman of the Week honors.

Taylor Gushue, who started the season on a tear by homering on the first pitch he saw and driving in nine runs in his first nine games before he started to struggle, leads all freshmen with 20 RBI. Gushue, who has caught, played first base and served as a DH, is hitting just .160 in SEC play.

Gushue, however, is the exception among the group of freshmen who are playing regularly. Shafer, Tobias and Turgeon have been pretty consistent despite dealing with a grind that is so much tougher than what they faced in high school.

“For a freshman, it’s hard,” Shafer said. “You’ve got to get used to being out here for so many more games. It’s probably almost triple a high school season, so I think trying to keep your body in shape for that many games is the biggest difference from high school to now.”

They seem to be handling it pretty well.