Justin Shafer wasn’t sure why he was being called into Bisons manager Bobby Meacham’s office in the visitors’ clubhouse on that June afternoon in Pawtucket.
But in the back of his mind, he knew there was a chance he was going back to the majors.
“Would you be willing to play in the All-Star Game?” Shafer recalled Meacham asking. “I believe you’re going to be selected.”
“And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go. I’ve got no plans, so, yeah, I’ll be there with you.’ ”
It’s not that Shafer was disappointed by the opportunity. Quite the contrary.
The right-handed relief pitcher had never been named an all-star at any level. At the time, he was the Bisons’ only player representative named to the 2019 Triple-A All-Star Game on Wednesday in El Paso, Texas. And he was being asked to accompany Meacham, who had been named the International League’s manager for the annual exhibition game against the Pacific Coast League.
The game will be broadcast live at 9 p.m. on MLB Network and ESPN 1520 AM.
But after making his major league debut with the Blue Jays last season, and after bouncing between the majors and minors a couple of times this season, Shafer had his sights set on a return to Toronto.
“It’s definitely a privilege,” Shafer, 26, said last week in Buffalo. “In past years, it might have meant a little bit more. I feel like that was always a goal, to be an all-star. But I feel like as you get older, it’s more about what you do out here every day, and if that happens, it happens.
“Obviously everyone’s goal here is to be a big-leaguer and to stay in the big leagues, so hopefully that’s just another step working that way.”
As it turns out, it's a step he gets to skip.
Shafer was recalled to the Blue Jays on Sunday, and Bisons left-handed reliever Kirby Snead has taken his place on the all-star roster. Snead, 24, the Blue Jays’ 10th-round pick in 2016, was promoted to the Bisons in early May. He owns a 3.55 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 25.1 innings.
Shafer has far superior statistics this season.
An eighth-round pick out of the University of Florida in 2014, Shafer has thrived after being asked to essentially reinvent his game this past offseason.
The Blue Jays’ analytics staff determined the 6-foot-2, 195-pound righty should transition from a ground-ball pitcher into one who attacks batters with his 95-mph four-seam fastball up in the strike zone. And while his ERA has predictably climbed, so too has his strikeout rate.
Shafer leads the Bisons with seven saves this season and owns a 1.88 ERA with 33 strikeouts and seven walks in 28.2 innings pitched. He’s allowed two home runs.
“It’s the first time in my career I’ve had more strikeouts than innings,” Shafer said. “I don’t know the science behind it. I just know they say I have a high-induced vertical break and I have a really high spin rate, and with those two together, that should play to throw up in the zone.”
In six appearances in Toronto this season, he’s produced a 2.89 ERA with nine strikeouts and eight walks in 9.1 innings.
It’s better than he fared in his first taste of the majors last season, when he managed a 3.24 ERA, but with only two strikeouts and a disappointing seven walks in 8.1 innings.
“He’s learning what kind of pitcher he is right now and he’s been effective, the way he’s kind of tinkered here and there,” Meacham said. “He’s done a really good job for us. And he’s gone up to Toronto and done a good job, too.”
Shafer’s most recent promotion leaves Jordan Romano as the Bisons’ active saves leader with five. He owns a 5.82 ERA with 47 strikeouts to 14 walks in 34 innings pitched.
Buddy Boshers is second with four saves, a 2.70 ERA and 27 strikeouts to 12 walks in 23.1 innings pitched.
Meacham said he’s been comfortable using all three to close games. He also mentioned Ty Tice, who's recorded four saves with Double-A New Hampshire this season, but has yet to receive a save opportunity since being promoted to the Bisons.
Shafer said adjusting to the majors has been a challenge.
“The hardest thing about the big leagues in general, besides it being the best players in the world, is trying to get comfortable very quickly up there and sticking to what you do,” Shafer said. “When you’re going up and down, you don’t really get that chance to get in a rhythm to find out, ‘This is what works, this is what doesn’t.’ You kind of just ping pong back and forth, so it’s a little bit harder to get comfortable.
“But I would say every time I’ve gone up so far, I feel like I get more and more comfortable and continue to build off the things I had done the previous time that I had success.”
He hopes that this time, he sticks.
“The Triple-A All-Star Game is great,” Shafer said, “but my goal is I want to be an everyday big-leaguer.”