The setting was perfect — Oklahoma.
The opponent just as perfect — Texas.
This was a Western movie in knickers. The tall, quiet hero out there standing on a pitcher’s mound, but it could have been a mesa somewhere out West.
All that was at stake was everything.
“To be honest, I knew how big this game was,” Jackson Wolf began, moments after he attended to business.
He could have been Gary Cooper in “High Noon” or Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the OK Corral or Davey Crockett at the Alamo.
He was standing up for what was right, for the underdog, for “the American way” as he faced the nation’s No. 2 team, Texas, for the second time in just about a week. This time it was in the Big 12 Tournament and the 6-foot-7 lefthander’s role was to save what was left of a disappointing season for West Virginia.
A week earlier he had beaten Texas, 5-4, to earn a victory over the highest-ranked opponent WVU had ever defeated in the school’s history and now, on Wednesday night, he had to duplicate the feat in what could be his final game in a Mountaineer uniform.
“Going into the game I knew that, No. 1, the team needed a win,” he said. “A win tonight will make the route to the championship way easier than out of the loser’s bracket. Then, No. 2, for myself, I knew it could be my last game in a Mountaineer uniform.
“I was very aware of both of those. My mindset was I was very aware of both of those and I was going to give it everything I got and I’d wear my heart on my sleeve. That’s exactly what I did,” he said.
That was what Gary Cooper did, what Earp and Holliday did at the OK Corral, what Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie and Sam Houston did at the Alamo.
This was the stuff heroes are made of, pitching a rare complete game and throwing more than 130 pitches doing so, holding Texas to one run, winning a baseball game that had to be won.
If it had been a football or basketball game, it would have been celebrated across the Mountaineer state right through Memorial Day. It was the kind of performance you got from Da’Sean Butler when he needed one, the kind of performance you got from Pat White or Steve Slaton or Grant Wiley when things seemed at their lowest.
It was a heroic performance in an era where heroes in America are getting harder and harder to find.
“I told them, if you are going to win some games like this, you gotta have some heroes, man,” Coach Randy Mazey said, going back to a pre-game speech that may not have matched Bill Stewart’s “Leave No Doubt” speech in the Fiesta Bowl but that was just as effective in a different situation.
“We can’t do it without heroes and we definitely had a couple tonight.”
Make no doubt, WVU has been doing heroic things in the Big 12 Tournament. Their struggles through the season left them in a play-in game against Kansas to open up, a game in which it was win or go-home in what is otherwise a double-elimination tournament.
They got down 5-0 in that game and came back and won in what may not have been a heroic manner but was nonetheless a fitting manner, scoring the winning run with a hit batter and three walks, leaving them with a walk-off walk.
“On the scale of walk-off excitement, a walk is one of the lowest, but it doesn’t change the fact that this was a really good win for us,” Mazey suggested after Victor Scott drew the winning walk in the bottom of the ninth against Kansas.
You could almost feel the quiet determination that the likes of Gary Cooper had in that classic “High Noon” western from Wolf, who stoically saved the Mountaineers’ world against heavy odds.
“He’s taken such a professional approach,” Mazey admitted. “One of the ways to learn that is to watch someone who is really good at something and do what they do. Jackson had the experience of watching Alek Manoah go through his career and his professional approach to nutrition and working out and having the demeanor on the mound and working out.
“He took a page out of that book and has stepped up and is his own guy right now. He is super calm. The pickoff in the seventh inning was a huge pickoff. When he got the pickoff sign, and he hasn’t tried that pickoff move in probably his last four or five outings, (he) executed it perfectly. That was a huge out because he was showing signs of getting in trouble that inning.”
“When you are faced with adversity, that’s the time to bear down and focus even more and figure out how to execute those pitches,” Wolf said. “Tonight, I put a couple of runners on via free passes, which is never good, but eliminating free passes and the damage that could bring about was pretty good.”
And the pickoff?
He did what he had to do and succeeded because he had prepared for adversity.
“That’s what I do between innings. I get some water and I’m sitting there, trying to clear my head and focus on the task at hand. When you get up in the situation, you are not going to have success that way. You have to find a way to shift all your thoughts to something that is positive and I think I did that great tonight.”
With Jackson Wolf showing the way, WVU had others stand tall, others like Austin Davis, who had two hits and an RBi, and Matt McCormick, who had a pair of hits and two RBIs.
“We had a bunch of guys who put their hearts on their sleeves tonight and played as hard as they could for the Mountaineers.,” Mazey said. “They know how many people they represent, all the millions of people in West Virginia, the students and the administration and everybody who waves the Mountaineer flag.”