Ranked in the top 25 at the start of the season, 2021 has not gone as the Mountaineer baseball team had hoped.
Currently holding a 15-21 record heading into a May 5 non-conference matchup with Pitt, West Virginia has struggled with off-field injuries and illness, as well as on-field consistency.
WVU is last in the Big 12 offensively in batting average (.243) and runs scored (5.0 per game), as well as in ERA (5.49).
The brightest light amidst this Mountaineer darkness has been starting pitcher Jackson Wolf. The 6-foot-7, 200-pound left-hander from Gahanna, Ohio, holds a 3-5 record, though he hasn’t gotten a whole lot of offensive support in those five losses. WVU has scored an average of just 2.4 runs per game during Wolf’s five losses. The junior’s 3.69 ERA has been solid, and he easily leads the team in starts (10), innings pitched (61) and strikeouts (75). He is third in the Big 12 Conference in strikeouts, and he’s sixth in the league in opposing batting average (.207).
“You can always do better, but for the most part I’ve been happy with the way I’ve pitched this season,” said Wolf when asked to evaluate his performance this year. “Overall I’d give myself a B or an A.”
Wolf has been building throughout his Mountaineer career. Used mainly out of the bullpen as a freshman in 2018, he made 17 appearances and had a 4.07 ERA that season. Then in 2019, he earned a spot in WVU’s starting rotation, amassing a 2-4 record and a 5.17 record with 50 strikeouts as a sophomore. In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, he was off to a very strong start with a 3-1 record and a 1.05 ERA before all college sports were shut down in mid-March because of the global pandemic. The NCAA froze the eligibility for all 2020 spring sport student-athletes, so Wolf is a fourth-year junior this year.
As Wolf has matured, he’s gained better control of his 6-foot-7, 200-pound body, and his strikeout numbers have skyrocketed in conjunction with that.
“I figured out that timing in your motion is one of the most important portions of your mechanics,” Wolf noted in a recent interview on the “MetroNews Statewide Sportsline.” “Once I figured out when my arm needs to fire in proportion to my body, that’s when I saw a big jump in my command of my fastball. Now I really know where it’s going, and I can notice when I make a bad pitch, how off it feels. That’s a good thing because it shows I’m repeating my motion and doing a good job with that.”
Wolf has assumed the role of the Friday starter for the Mountaineers.
“I think this year more than ever, I’ve seen how it dictates how the rest of the weekend goes,” said Wolf of being the Friday starter. “Seeing how that first game goes on Friday helps the team play more relaxed the rest of the weekend. When guys aren’t uptight, it makes things a little easier in a failure-filled sport.”
A first-team all-conference pitcher at Gahanna Lincoln High, Wolf wasn’t an unknown in the prep ranks – he was rated the 20th-best overall prospect in 2017 by Perfect Game – but college offers weren’t pouring in either … until WVU’s coaches saw him pitch.
“To be honest, the decision to come here was fairly easy,” Wolf stated. “West Virginia showed the most initiative for me to be on their team. They really wanted me to be here. I wasn’t the most highly sought-after recruit. Some of the other schools were saying they liked me but weren’t really pulling a trigger on an offer. West Virginia saw me once and came up with an offer. Then when I came here on a visit, I fell in love with WVU and really wanted to come here.
“The part about playing in the Big 12 wasn’t a big deal for me initially, but then I started to realize how much better the Big 12 was than the other leagues I was being recruited to,” said Wolf.
The Big 12 currently has the second-best collective RPI ranking in college baseball behind only the SEC.
“So, it was really a win-win for me to not only come to West Virginia but to play in a league like the Big 12,” he said.
From lightly-recruiting high school prospect to the lead starter for a major conference baseball program, Wolf’s ascension came with physical maturity.
“I’ve played baseball pretty much ever since I could pick up a bat. I’ve always been a sports guy, pretty athletic,” he explained. “I grew a lot throughout high school. I came into high school at like 5-foot-9, but then I had a big growth spurt my freshman year and another solid spurt my sophomore year, and I got up to where I am now.
“I gained a lot of (velocity) on my fastball as I grew, which kind of relates to me being not as highly recruited as some others,” he added. “Those guys hit their growth spurts at a younger age than me, so they were massive, shaving two times a week while I was shaving two times a month. I went through my big spurt in high school, and ever since then I’ve been figuring out my body.”
As with many baseball players, Wolf also had developed some game-day superstitions along the way.
“I usually wear the same socks from start to start,” he admitted with a smile. “That’s usually my biggest game-day routine.
“Me and the equipment guy, Michael Stokes, we have a good relationship,” he added. “He knows how important my socks are to me, and he hand picks my loop out of the laundry, and he makes sure it gets where it needs to be.”
Wearing the same socks isn’t the only routine Wolf has before a start.
“When we’re at home, I usually go to Firehouse Subs and get an Italian sub for my lunch for the day of my start,” he said.
“I also will do a little homework, because I usually have stuff due on Fridays. Getting my mind off baseball and on homework helps the time pass until the normal 6:30 start time on Fridays.”
The Mountaineers’ 2021 baseball season is winding down with 11 more regular-season games on the schedule.
After that, Wolf is hoping there is still more baseball in his future, as he’s viewed as a likely MLB draft pick this summer. If not, he has another option.
“I grew up watching all those shows like ‘CSI,’ and I’ve always thought it would be cool to be a detective,” said the criminology major. “I’m super into that stuff, and I’d like to look into that someday, but I’ll have time for that when my arm falls off.”