Hitting streak still in Ventura’s hands
Oklahoma State slugger has record for 58-game hitting streak
It started quietly enough. Oklahoma State’s baseball team, with six consecutive College World Series appearances, was playing a mid-week game at home against Missouri Southern on March 18. This was game 12 of the 1987 season and the Cowboys easily dispatched the Lions 23-1 and improved to 11-1. Almost everyone in the OSU lineup that day recorded a base hit, including sophomore third baseman Robin Ventura. But for Ventura the hits would just keep on coming, all the way to the College World Series in June.
The consecutive-game hitting streak initially did not spark a lot of interest when it passed 20 consecutive games in early April, and even when Ventura hit in his 30th game in a row on April 17 at Kansas. But his teammates already were tracking on his run, especially later in the KU series. “I was down to my last at bat and hadn’t gotten a hit,” Ventura said. “It was a 3-2 count and the guys in the dugout were yelling that I had to swing. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that I had a hitting streak going. But I got a hit on the next pitch and it became a bigger deal after that.”
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When the streak surpassed 40 games during a doubleheader at Iowa State on May 2, the entire college baseball world also realized something special might be taking place on the Stillwater, Okla., campus.
Wichita State’s Phil Stephenson held the Division I record of 47 consecutive games, established in 1981, but as the ’87 regular season turned into the postseason for Oklahoma State, Ventura continued to deliver base hits and tied the record during a Big Eight conference tournament loss to Oklahoma. The Cowboys staved off elimination from the league tournament and Ventura passed Stephenson’s mark during an 18-14 win against Missouri on May 15. OSU then dealt Oklahoma consecutive defeats and won the Big Eight tournament and an automatic berth to the NCAA championship. Ventura’s consecutive game hitting streak stood at 50 games.
The Cowboys were assigned to the NCAA Midwest Regional, hosted by Mississippi State, and were seeded No. 1 in the six-team competition. After two victories to begin the regional, OSU lost to Texas A&M 4-1, and had to fight through the losers' bracket to make it back to Omaha for a record seventh consecutive year. Through it all, Ventura kept hitting and the streak reached 53 consecutive games.
Although most baseball fans agreed it was comparing apples with oranges when the 56-game hitting streak of New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio was mentioned, the idea that a young Santa Maria, Calif., college kid was this close to that 1941 MLB achievement added just a little more excitement to the regional -- not to mention the sudden-death aspect of the double-elimination event.
But the Cowboys were not about to let their season come to an end in Mississippi, and swept through the next three games of the regional to earn another trip to the College World Series. OSU beat Texas A&M 7-4 and 11-9, with Ventura delivering the game-winning RBI in both games. The streak was 56 -- the same as Joltin’ Joe.
Now on the biggest stage in college baseball, Oklahoma State was set to play Game 1 of the CWS at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha against another baseball power, Arizona State. Ventura remembered that the streak was “a little bit of a distraction, but no one on the team ever said anything.” Ventura was hitless his first two trips, but ripped an RBI single to right in his third at-bat and the Cowboys downed the Sun Devils 8-3. The streak was 57.
Three days later, OSU met LSU. Like the first CWS game, Ventura was hitless his first two trips, along with a walk. Heavy rains forced the game to be halted and resumed the next afternoon. With future big leaguer Ben McDonald now on the mound for the Tigers, Ventura delivered an RBI double, the Cowboys won 8-7 and the streak increased to 58.
Game 3 for Oklahoma State was another key matchup: 2-0 OSU vs. 2-0 Stanford. The winner of the game would be assured a berth in the CWS Championship Game. (Note: The CWS format changed the next year). Pitching for the Cardinal was another future major-leaguer -- and Ventura's soon-to-be MLB teammate -- Jack McDowell.
Stanford led 2-0 as OSU came to bat in the top of the sixth. Ventura, already 0-for-2, led off the inning with a line out to third. But the rest of the Cowboys finally got to McDowell, sending eight men to the plate and scoring six runs. Ventura popped out to short center to open the seventh.
As the game moved to the top of the ninth with OSU still leading 6-2, everyone knew Ventura was 0-for-4 and scheduled to hit fourth in the inning against reliever Al Osuna (another future big league pitcher). After two quick outs, Ray Ortiz singled to left to give Ventura one last attempt to extend the streak. Ventura connected on a sharply-hit ground ball to Cardinal second baseman Frank Carey. The ball bounced off Carey’s chest and Ventura beat the throw to first and advanced to second on the errant throw.
All eyes then turned to the Rosenblatt Stadium scoreboard, awaiting the official scorer’s decision. ... After reviewing a replay of the ground ball, long-time official scorer Lou Spry ruled an error on Carey and Division I’s longest hitting steak came to an end. Despite Ventura’s 0-for-5 day, OSU beat Stanford 6-2, and that was the most important thing to Ventura.
“It doesn’t matter that my streak was broken, because we’re now playing for the national title,” Ventura said during the postgame news conference. He also had no problem with the scorer’s decision. “It was an error. My only question was the fact that it wasn’t two errors. Jack McDowell is a good pitcher and I swung at some pitches I shouldn’t have.”
The Cowboys suffered their first CWS loss the next day, 6-5 against Texas, with Ventura going 1-for-4. Meanwhile, Stanford fought back through the losers' bracket and faced OSU for the national championship on June 7. Oklahoma State led 3-2 in the final game before Stanford struck for four runs in the fifth and added three more in the ninth to win its first baseball championship 9-5. Despite giving up 12 hits in seven innings, Stanford’s McDowell avenged the earlier loss to OSU and got the victory. Ventura went 4-for-5 in the championship game.
Ventura, now the first-year manager for the Chicago White Sox, said it will be more challenging for a DI college player to break his long-standing record. “I think it definitely is more difficult now,” Ventura said. “Back then, there weren’t bullpen setup guys. The major leagues had gotten to that point, but college had not. Now you are seeing deeper college bullpens and more specialists.”
Ventura was part of the USA baseball team that competed in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea, and later was drafted by the White Sox as the 10th pick in the first round of the major league baseball draft in 1988. (McDowell was drafted by the White Sox with the fifth pick in 1987.)
Ventura played for 16 years in the major leagues before retiring with the New York Yankees in 2004.
Note: Damian Costantino holds the NCAA record with a 60-game hitting streak, set during the 2001-03 seasons. He played for Division III Salve Regina University.