Wittels, Ventura meet by phone to talk streaks

MIAMI (AP) — Florida International's Garrett Wittels has been in a hitting groove like this once before. He might have even been hotter at the plate.

Of course, the ball came in at 0 mph then.

"In T-ball," Wittels said, "I never got out."

Division I baseball isn't T-ball, and still, Wittels doesn't get out much now, either. In the span of three months, he's gone from being an afterthought on his own team to full-fledged star. He's the owner of a 54-game hitting streak — four shy from Robin Ventura's Division I record — that he'll take into the NCAA tournament on Friday when FIU meets Texas A&M at the Coral Gables Regional.

He hit .246 as a freshman last season, then .236 last summer for the Luray Wranglers in Virginia's Valley Baseball League, a wood-bat league for college players.

And somehow, out of numbers like that, this pursuit of history was born.

"He's just grown up as a player, as a person and as a student-athlete," FIU coach Turtle Thomas said. "He's been real good, of course, all season."

Real good. Real, real good, that is.

He's hitting .412 this season.

This 54-game streak has been tested more than once, with Wittels needing late-game heroics to keep it going on seven occasions. He came into the year with no real position, nor a real spot in the batting order. And in the oddest twist of all, Wittels wasn't even supposed to be an everyday player for the Golden Panthers.

That's right, he was envisioned as a bench player. Today, he's the Sun Belt Conference's player of the year.

Go figure.

"He's handled the pressure as good a human being — for a sophomore — that you'll ever see," Thomas said.

He's had some help.

Baseball is a game filled with superstitions, and Wittels subscribes to plenty of them. His wrists and ankles get taped the same way every day. He'll take the field on Friday in the same pants, socks and sliding shorts as he's worn in every game this season. He'll have a mouthful of watermelon-flavored bubble gum for the 55th straight game. In the stands, his family will have a voodoo doll at the ready to ward off evil spirits, or mouthy opposing fans. He hasn't cut his hair since the season began.

Teammates have gotten into it all as well. No one touches the bat Wittels used to start the streak, even though it was retired with a dent weeks ago. Some guys participate in special handshakes that look like they needed weeks of choreography. And much like Wittels, they don't want to talk about the streak that much, either.

"Our players pull for Garrett every time he goes to the plate very hard because he's absolutely a team favorite," Thomas said. "And they almost feel like when he gets a hit, they get a hit, too. He's hitting third in the lineup and that's normally where you put your best hitter. It's a big deal for them as well as our program and himself."

Wittels happily talked about the streak on Tuesday night with one of his newest fans.

He took a call from Ventura, who has been rooting for Wittels to keep the streak going in recent weeks. Even though they've been linked for some time — Wittels' streak has been making headlines for weeks — the FIU sophomore didn't know much about Ventura, other than that he played in the majors.

Wittels said it was "a great conversation with Mr. Ventura," and that the two talked about the pressures that come with such a streak.

"He's a great guy," Wittels said. "Just very honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as him."

Ventura holds the Division I mark with a 58-game streak for Oklahoma State in 1987. He and Wittels are the only players in Division I history with streaks that lasted more than 47 games.

Still, for the last month at least, Wittels has said the streak is secondary. FIU is in the NCAA field for the first time since 2001, and needed to win five straight elimination games in the Sun Belt tournament to keep the postseason bid alive.

The winning, Wittels said, is what he's thinking about. Nothing else, hard as that might be to believe.

"If you ever want to play one day in the major leagues, you have to be able to deal with the pressure, no matter what level it is," Wittels said.