MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – When the first pitch of the day was thrown at 9:03 a.m. Central time Friday, Florida International shortstop Garrett Wittels' hitting streak was the biggest story. But by the time FIU's second game of the day ended at 11:30 p.m., the streak had become perhaps the least dramatic part of the day.
Wittels, a sophomore, singled in FIU's Sun Belt Conference tourney game against South Alabama in the morning, then had three hits in the nightcap against Florida Atlantic to extend his streak to 52 games, second-longest in Division I history. But it wasn't his work at the plate that was noteworthy in the second game, which FIU won 18-16 in 11 innings to stay alive in the tourney.
Wittels went from shortstop to reliever to shortstop and finally back to reliever again against FAU, and he collapsed into a heap three steps from the pitcher's mound at the end of the game, lacking the energy to do much of anything else.
What makes Wittels' night all the more extraordinary is that while he blew a save in the eighth, he got the win in the 11th.
Wittels is six games away from tying Robin Ventura's NCAA Division I record, set at Oklahoma State in 1987. Wittels goes for 53 today in an elimination game with FAU; should Wittels get a hit but FIU lose, his streak will go on hiatus until next spring, when he will be able to resume his quest.
Wittels went into Friday night's game with 2 2/3 innings of experience as a college pitcher. He pitched three innings Friday night – the eighth, 10th and 11th. At the plate, Wittels went 3-of-6 with three RBI and two runs.
"I've had nothing close to this," Wittels said. "My district championship [in high school] was like this because I had to go from the mound to shortstop to the mound, but nothing like this."
Wittels allowed two unearned runs in the eighth inning – and they were unearned because he committed an error. But FIU coach Turtle Thomas summoned Wittels again in the bottom of the 10th. With FIU holding a 16-14 lead, Wittels gave up two more runs.
But FIU regained the lead in the top of the 11th on a home run by T.J. Shantz. Wittels returned to the mound in the bottom of the inning and promptly allowed two singles. But he struck out the next two hitters and induced a groundout to end the game.
"Garrett's pitched a lot in high school over the years, and he's closed games before," Thomas said. " He said, 'I got this,' and sure enough, he got it."
Wittels couldn't be blamed for feeling tired. FIU played eight hours and 33 minutes of baseball in two games Friday. Between games, they watched another game and sat through a two-and-a-half-hour weather delay.
Wittels has a hit in every FIU game this season, and some superstitions have grown during the streak. For instance, he only chews watermelon-flavored Bubblicious gum on game days and he hasn't cut his hair since the season began.
Wittels' hitting streak is a bit of welcome good news at FIU. On March 25, Kendall Berry, a running back on the football team, was fatally stabbed outside the student recreation center by a former walk-on teammate.
In between FIU's tournament games Friday, Wittels appeared on ESPNews. Not long after, Ventura was interviewed to talk about the streak.
"I just try to keep it going as long as I can and help my team win as much as I can," Wittels said.