- Associated Press - Friday, February 18, 2011

MIAMI (AP) - Garrett Wittels said he would tip his cap to whomever ended his hitting streak.

Much to Florida International’s dismay, Friday was the night he made good on that vow.

Wittels‘ pursuit of NCAA history is over. He went 0 for 4 against Southeastern Louisiana, leaving him two games shy of matching Robin Ventura’s 58-game Division I record set in 1987 and four short of the NCAA all-divisions mark of 60 games by Damian Costantino of Division III Salve Regina from 2001-03.

“Eventually, honestly, I’ll break history somehow,” Wittels said. “I know I’m second place in this, but I plan on playing baseball for a lot more years. And I’ll break history another time.”

Southeastern Louisiana won the game, 10-2. It was the season opener for both teams.

Wittels‘ best chance for a hit came in the eighth, but his sharp grounder to third was snared by a diving Jonathan Pace, who scrambled to touch the base in time for the second out of the inning. It went in the books as a fielder’s choice, Wittels‘ second of the night, and that was the junior shortstop’s final chance.

Garrett squared that ball up and that’s a hit 99 percent of the time,” Southeastern Louisiana coach Jay Artigues said. “Jonathan made a tremendous play on that ball.”

For months, Wittels sat on one of baseball’s most revered numbers _ 56, of course, is the number of consecutive games in which Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio hit safely for the New York Yankees in 1941, setting the major league record.

DiMaggio also was thwarted by an opposing third baseman _ Ken Keltner of the Cleveland Indians turned in a pair of fine plays to stop the famous streak.

Wittels nearly got to 57 as well. But Pace made sure that didn’t happen, and Wittels gave him a congratulatory pat as they crossed paths in the infield between innings.

“He rounded second and he came up to me and said, ‘I hit that ball hard. Nice pick,’” Pace said. “I saw him coming and really didn’t know what he was going to say. He’s a great ballplayer.”

Said Wittels, who was 7 for 7 in late-game situations with the streak on the line in 2010: “I didn’t deserve it.”

Wittels reached on a fielder’s choice in the first, fouled out near the right-field bullpen in the third and grounded out to third in the sixth inning _ one pitch after successfully lobbying plate umpire Michael Baker that a ball which appeared to hit his hand actually hit the knob of his bat instead.

Afterward, Wittels acknowledged that he was hit by the pitch.

“Worst moment in baseball I’ve ever been a part of in my life,” Wittels said. “I got hit by a pitch and I was selfish and didn’t take my base. Honestly, I’m more (upset) about that than not continuing into history. … I don’t really know what was going through my head at the time.”

Wittels went 0 for 3 against Brandon Efferson and 0 for 1 against reliever Stefan Lopez.

With the streak over, it’s doubtful things will completely return to normal for Wittels anytime soon.

He made headlines on and off the field in 2010, first for the streak that helped FIU win the Sun Belt Conference title and won him the league’s player of the year award, then for an alleged rape of a 17-year-old while with friends in the Bahamas last December. Wittels was freed on bond, but the case is not expected to be resolved for months.

For his part, Wittels insists that he’s been able to focus on baseball and that he’s able to “sleep well” in his belief that he was falsely accused in the Bahamas.

And when the streak was over, he came over to the visitors’ dugout to shake Artigues’ hand.

“I think everybody in the country knows Garrett is a special player, but unfortunately, they don’t know how special he is as a person,” Artigues said. “We’ve heard a lot of great things about the kid. It’s unfortunate, the stuff he had to go through, but it says a heck of a lot about his character. That’s a heck of a young man to come over here, as much pressure as he was under, to congratulate the opponents.”

It was easy to see Wittels‘ level of excitement, even before the game.

When the team gathered to run a series of short sprints in left field about 25 minutes before the first pitch, Wittels typically started in the back of the pack, then passed just about everyone by the end. He hopped nervously from side to side at times while taking grounders during infield practice, then clapped his hands repeatedly on the way into the dugout.

The nerves showed at the plate, too: He swung wildly at the first pitch he saw Friday, missing badly and losing his balance.

“One thing I know about Garrett, if he was getting this job done, he was going to go down swinging,” FIU coach Turtle Thomas said.

Wittels‘ streak reached 56 games on June 5, 2010 _ 259 days before Friday’s matchup. He said having that kind of hiatus during the streak was incredibly tough.

Costantino will attest to that. He’s been there.

“It’s the exact same scenario,” Costantino told The Associated Press on Friday. “I waited almost a whole year for two games.”

Much like Wittels, Costantino’s sophomore season ended with his hitting streak at exactly 56 games. The following spring, he got hits in the first four games of his junior season, surpassing the mark Ventura set for Oklahoma State before embarking on an All-Star career in the majors.

Costantino followed Wittels‘ streak from afar.

“I’m sure waiting has been absolute torture for him,” he said.

It was.

So was the ending.

“It’s been an amazing run,” Wittels said. “I’m so proud of myself. I’m about to go out in tears right now.”

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