May 29, 2010

(AP) - Garrett Wittels used a headfirst slide to keep his hitting streak alive. It helped extend Florida International's season as well.

Wittels pushed his hitting streak to 53 games, five away from Robin Ventura's NCAA Division I record, with an infield single Saturday in the eighth inning of FIU's game against Florida Atlantic in the Sun Belt Conference tournament at Murfreesboro, Tenn.

FIU wound up getting four runs in the eighth, winning the game 11-9 and clinching a spot in Sunday's title game with a guaranteed spot in the NCAA tournament at stake.

"Down two runs in the eighth inning, I was going up to bat knowing I needed to be a baserunner," Wittels said by phone after the game. "I looked over at coach (Turtle) Thomas, he just said, 'Get a hit,' and I decided right then I wasn't going to chase anything out of the zone."

Wittels worked a 2-0 count, then hit a fastball off FAU pitcher Taylor Everist's glove.

"One of the hardest balls I ever hit," said Wittels, who finished 1 for 5. "And just out of the excitement, I decided to dive headfirst into the base. I didn't even know if their guy had a play. I don't even know if there was a throw."

The excitement didn't stop there. The next FIU batter, Jeremy Patton, put the Golden Panthers ahead for good with a three-run home run.

Back in Miami, where FIU is based, Wittels was even a pregame conversation topic in the Florida Marlins' clubhouse.

"You've got to be locked in to have one for 53 games," Marlins leadoff hitter Chris Coghlan said Saturday. "It doesn't matter what level. It's definitely a pretty cool streak. I hope he gets it and gets respect for what he's done."

Said Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez: "I'm pulling for him."

Wittels' success is something that FIU didn't even see coming this season. When the Golden Panthers opened their schedule, Wittels - who struggled mightily at the plate last year as a freshman - wasn't expected to be an everyday player.

Now, he's gotten a hit in every game in which he's played in 2010. And thanks in part to that, FIU has likely played itself into consideration for an at-large berth into the NCAA field.

Wittels said the Golden Panthers would obviously prefer the automatic berth.

"I'm definitely enjoying all of this, and I enjoy it more when I get a hit and we win as well," Wittels said. "I'm just excited to compete for the conference championship tomorrow. We're going out there and trying to get a ring."

Wittels has come up huge for FIU with both his bat and his arm in the Sun Belt tournament.

FIU and FAU were meeting for the second time in about 14 hours on Saturday. FIU won Friday night 18-16 in 11 innings, a marathon that ended at 12:31 a.m. - 4 hours, 51 minutes after it began.

The Sun Belt's player of the year, Wittels pitched the final three innings of that game, making just his fourth appearance on the mound this year.

"Our whole team was tired today," Wittels said. "But all year long we've been preaching conditioning. It's paying off."