Wittels streak now at 54 games, FIU going to NCAAs

MIAMI (AP) — Florida International's Garrett Wittels is taking his pursuit of the Division I hitting-streak record to the NCAA tournament.

Wittels got a hit in his 54th straight game and FIU beat Troy 14-10 on Sunday in the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference tournament in Murfreesboro, Tenn., clinching a berth in the NCAA field.

The Golden Panthers (36-23) will find out which regional they'll be sent to Monday, knowing they're probably off to either Gainesville, Fla., or nearby Coral Gables this weekend.

"We don't want this to end," Wittels said by phone as FIU started the 18-hour bus ride back to Miami. "We're going after it every day, playing hard and swinging the bats really well."

None better than Wittels, of course.

The sophomore infielder — who got a season-saving pitching win for FIU during the tournament — was 2 for 6 on Sunday. He moved within four games of matching Robin Ventura's record of 58 straight games with a hit set in 1987 for Oklahoma State.

"The biggest thing is that this a team," Wittels said. "We've got so many guys stepping up every single day, someone else getting the job done."

Still, Ventura's mark — a faraway notion a couple weeks ago — keeps getting closer.

"I'm really not thinking about it," Wittels said. "We've got to get ready for a regional, get in there, hopefully swing the bats and have everything keep going as planned."

Just as the streak has seemed at times, with Wittels needing some late-inning heroics on occasion to keep it going, things got dicey late Sunday for FIU.

The Golden Panthers gave up four runs in the ninth, making two pitching changes in the final inning alone, eventually giving the ball to Scott Rembisz — who pitched six innings the previous day and got the win for FIU over Florida Atlantic. Rembisz shut the door, getting those elusive final three outs, and FIU had its first Sun Belt title since 1999.

"It was amazing," Wittels said. "To be able to dogpile with my teammates, all of us enjoying the moment, it was great. I know it was a little scary there, but I knew one of the relief pitchers would come in there and get the job done for sure."

It's an improbable NCAA trip for FIU, which lost its first game in the Sun Belt double-elimination tournament. The Golden Panthers went to the NCAAs six times in a seven-year span from 1995 through 2001, yet hadn't been back since — until this season.

It's also been an improbable season for Wittels, who batted just .246 as a freshman last year, including a two-month stretch where he hit .188. Now he's the Sun Belt player of the year, is getting plenty of national attention, has been talked about in major league clubhouses and even has Ventura rooting for him.

To top it all off, he's going to the NCAA tournament, too. FIU won five straight games to capture the Sun Belt title, doing so by a combined score of 60-47.

"That's been our goal since this season started," Wittels said.