Heading into the start of the Big 12 Baseball Tournament Wednesday afternoon, no first-round matchup featured two teams as different as one another than West Virginia and Texas.
The Longhorns enjoyed a wildly successful regular season, going 40-13, 17-7 in the Big 12. They are currently ranked No. 2 in the nation, have already secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament and entered Tuesday as the top seed in the Big 12 Tournament.
The Mountaineers, however, struggled through a 24-25 regular season, going 8-16 and winning just one series in conference play. WVU came in as the No. 8 seed in the tournament and had to defeat Kansas Tuesday night in a play-in game just to make it to the first round.
The only similarity between the teams on Wednesday was that both squads had their ace pitcher on the mound. WVU left-hander Jackson Wolf squared off against UT’s Ty Madden, the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year. Wolf and Madden were facing off for the second time in six days as the two also pitched against each other last Thursday in the final series of the regular season. Wolf got the better of Madden last week, although he only pitched 5 1/3 innings and allowed four runs. WVU’s offense scored five runs off Madden as the Mountaineers won 5-4.
On Wednesday, however, it was all Wolf.
The junior put together a masterful nine-inning complete game, allowing just one run on five hits and striking out seven, as WVU won 5-1, knocking the top-seeded Longhorns into the loser’s bracket.
“That’s the best I’ve ever seen him pitch, the last three innings in particular,” WVU coach Randy Mazey said. “You always know that in a game like that you’re going to end up facing the meat of their order either in the eighth or the ninth inning. When he got through those guys in the middle of the order, … that’s not just Jackson Wolf at his finest, that’s any pitcher at his finest.”
WVU got on the board first against Madden on a solo home run by Hudson Byorick in the top of the second inning. That score held all the way until the fifth inning when the Mountaineers were able to scrape together two more runs on a sacrifice fly and a wild pitch to go up 3-0.
Wolf, meanwhile, was absolutely dominating the No. 2 team in the country. He allowed just two base runners through the first five innings on one hit and one walk. A lead-off home run in the bottom of the sixth threatened to throw Wolf off track but a double play and a strikeout got him through the inning.
Wolf has pitched late into games several times throughout this season, to mixed results.
“I’ve been sent back out for the ninth, sent back out for the eighth inning a couple of times and I would think that I probably only have one hitter left,” Wolf said. “I told myself after the last time that happed that if I were sent back out late in a game, that’s going to be put to the back burner and I’m only going to be focused on executing pitches.”
The seventh inning was the biggest test for Wolf on Wednesday. The Longhorns threatened with runners on first and second and just one when Wolf picked third baseman Cam Williams off second base. That pickoff proved important as allowed a single and a walk to the next two batters to load the bases. Wednesday was Wolf’s night, however, as he induced a harmless popup from the next batter to end the inning. Texas threatened again in the eighth, getting the leadoff hitter to second base with no outs but Wolf struck out the next three batters to escape.
“Every time I thought about potentially taking him out, he just would throw a pitch that was better than the one before” Mazey said. “The guy’s pitching as good as he ever has in his entire career, I can’t take him out now.”
Despite being at 123 pitches after eight innings, Wolf demanded that Mazey not take him out of the game.
“I told coach Mazey after the eighth inning that I don’t care what the pitch count numbers look like, I feel great, my body feels great,” Wolf said.
Wolf walked a batter in the ninth but got the next hitter to ground into a double play to end the game. His final pitch count was a career-high 138.
While defeating the top team in the tournament was nice, doing so without using any relievers was just an added bonus.
“Complete games in a tournament setting are worth their weight in gold,” Mazey said. “It’s no secret that we’re a little bit short on pitching and if we had to use a couple of relievers in this game, we’d be in real trouble.”
Senior shortstop Kevin Brophy finished the game 2-for-4 with a double and a triple, an RBI and two runs scored for the offense. Byorick and Tyler Doanes had the other two RBI for the Mountaineers.
West Virginia moves on to round two of the winner’s bracket and will play the winner of Oklahoma/Oklahoma State Thursday at 8:30 p.m. EST. Mazey declined to say who would start that game for the Mountaineers.