Sports

Former Providence, Clemson star starts off big for Durham Bulls

Durham Bull and former first-round draft pick Richie Shaffer takes batting practice before a game against the Charlotte Knights June 4, 2015 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Durham Bull and former first-round draft pick Richie Shaffer takes batting practice before a game against the Charlotte Knights June 4, 2015 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. tlong@newsobserver.com

Not often does a professional baseball player find ease after another hitless night, especially one who was 24 and was promoted to Triple A for the first time five days earlier.

But Durham Bulls third baseman Richie Shaffer was starting to settle in – to Triple-A baseball and into a new apartment.

“I just got all moved in,” Shaffer said during a recent interview. “I showed up (on Sunday), they taught me the signs, and it was like, ‘Hey, go play!’”

And how.

Shaffer blasted seven home runs in his first 58 Triple-A at-bats – highlighted by a three-homer game Friday at Louisville – matching his output in 39 games at Double-A Montgomery. His 14 home runs through Friday led all Rays’ minor leaguers.

A 2012 first-round pick from Charlotte, Shaffer arrived May 24, and Bulls manager Jared Sandberg inserted him into the lineup immediately. Shaffer flew from Knoxville, Tenn., where Montgomery was playing a weekend series, to Moosic, Penn., where the Bulls faced the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees. He landed at 12:30 a.m. and was in the lineup for the 1:05 p.m. first pitch.

“I was trying to not to go up there and screw anything up,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer went 4-for-5 with two home runs in a Durham victory in his Triple-A debut.

After going hitless in the next four games, all at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Shaffer has found his stroke. He had his first three-hit game as a Bull on Wednesday and entered the weekend hitting .296 with four home runs and 10 RBI in just 16 games.

Shaffer and outfielder Mikie Mahtook are the only first-round picks on the roster. Not that the moniker forces extra pressure on him – playing in the minor leagues, where the wins come second to player progression, is high-stakes enough.

“Back in college (at Clemson), I could go 0-for-4 with a couple of strikeouts, and I would go into the clubhouse after the game and be pumped,” Shaffer said. “Now, it’s performanced-based.”

He was drafted in 2009 out of Providence High School in the 25th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but decided against entering the minors as a 17-year-old corner infielder.

“When he was drafted, you have to remember that there wasn’t any slot numbers, so the team that drafted him was going to try to steal him,” Providence coach Danny Hignight said. “He was different (than other high school players) because he wanted to go to Clemson. He’s done everything he’s wanted to do, there and professionally.”

Shaffer said there he would have signed for the right price, but he believes he wasn’t mentally prepared for the minor leagues as a teenager.

Hignight offered advice, but his experience as a mentor allowed him to make Shaffer lean on his own thoughts.

“What I like to do is give them some guidance, but also I want to listen to what they want,” he said. “I told him to listen to what his heart wants to do. He wanted to go to school. We also believed that he would have the chance to make more money, which he ended up doing.

“It’s a rare, rare person who is ready for that mentality.”

Shaffer’s three seasons in Clemson included All-ACC honors, being a finalist for the National Player of the Year award and making an appearance in the College World Series under coach Jack Leggett.

“My parents were big on education and going to college, and that helped,” he said. “Looking back on it, I would have done everything the same every single time. There almost is not any amount of money you could put on my experiences (at Clemson) ... it’s not a job (in college), like baseball is now.”

The Rays picked Shaffer with the No. 25 overall pick in the 2012 draft, and he received a $1.71 million signing bonus. He played 24 games at third base at Low-A Hudson Valley. That fall, in the Arizona Fall League, Shaffer played four positions in an attempt to identify a secondary position. All-Star Evan Longoria is the Rays’ third baseman and is signed through the 2023 season.

Shaffer continued to play third base through the 2013 and 2014 seasons, for High-A Charlotte and Double-A Montgomery. Two trends developed in Shaffer’s hitting in Double A. First, his batting average dropped 34 points from his year in Charlotte, to a career-worst .222. Secondly, and related to the first trend, he continued to strike out, posting two consecutive seasons of at least 100 strikeouts. Shaffer was pressing.

“In the minor leagues, it is all about player progression, or else they’ll move on to the next guy,” Shaffer said. “You have to find a way to help the team.”

This spring, for the first time in his three years, he did not advance in the Rays system. His response was punishing to Double-A pitchers, with his OPS up from .759 in 2014 to a .832 before the Rays promoted him to Triple A.

The night after he moved into his apartment in Durham, Shaffer homered in a 4-2 win over Syracuse. After the three-homer game, his OPS climbed to a career-high 1.170 with the Bulls.

“The struggles in Double-A helped him to get into the position he’s in,” Hignight said. “At the end of the day, it’s about the guy in the mirror, and he didn’t quit.”

On the rise

How Richie Shaffer got to Durham:

2009: Drafted out of Providence High School, signed with Clemson.

2012: First-round pick by Rays (25th overall).

2013: 11 HRs, 73 RBIs at Class A Charlotte (Fla.).

2014: 19 HRs, 64 RBIs at Double-A Montgomery

2015: 7 HRs in first 39 Double-A games prompted promotion to Durham.

Funny story ...

Richie Shaffer’s favorite player was Cal Ripken Jr.. He wore No. 8 at every level through college because of Ripken. On Sept. 20, 1998, Shaffer finally got a chance to watch Ripken play in person. Ripken made history that night, too. He sat out, ending his record 2,632 consecutive games played streak. Shaffer told MLB.com he was walking toward the stadium when he heard the Orioles’ lineup. He didn’t hear Ripken’s name. “I was like, “What? Why didn’t he say Cal?”

Shaffer doesn’t wear 8 for the Bulls. But he maintains a connection by wearing 28.

“Whenever I can, I try to keep eight in there somewhere – when I can’t get it straight up, either 18 or 28. Having an eight in there is something I’ve always connected with,” Shaffer told MLB.com.

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