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For Wittels, the hits keep coming

The hair, last cut in January, now falls past his nose.

Garrett Wittels won't cut it as long as he keeps hitting, which for the Florida International sophomore infielder has been 54 consecutive games.

His teammates call his mane the "bird's nest" for the way it sticks and gnarls after an afternoon in the sun, when Wittels typically exhausts himself running and diving around the diamond, inevitably ending the day with the team's dirtiest uniform.

Underneath those long locks is the owner of the second-longest hitting streak in Division I history, trailing only the 58-game streak Oklahoma State's Robin Ventura set in 1987. Wittels will put his on the line against Texas A&M at noon on Friday in the first game of the NCAA regional in Coral Gables.

But there are times when even long hair cannot will a hit. For that there is Jobu. Wittels' uncle Edgar Bennett's favorite movie is Major League, and so just as the character Pedro Cerrano appealed to a voodoo doll called Jobu with incense and rum for help hitting curveballs, Bennett brings his own home-fashioned Jobu doll to the ballpark. And, according to Wittels, if he doesn't have a hit after his first couple of at bats, his uncle will take a swig from a mini bottle of rum "to get the spirits right."

Great baseball achievements are always the handiwork of the preordained stars. Scout the list of major-league cycles, no-hitters and perfect games for a reminder -- Dallas Braden? Jody Gerut? -- and no one would have expected such a streak from Wittels after a disappointing freshman season in which he batted just .246. He then played in a wood-bat summer league in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and hit .236. Not the makings of a hit machine, even if his grandfather used to call him "Pete Rose" for his style of play.

But Wittels was a star at Miami's Krop High and chose FIU over some other strong baseball programs. The final choice was between FIU and N.C. State, but he also received interest from Miami and Louisville. Now he's batting .412 and is arguably the most famous player in Div. I baseball, with updates of his streak regularly rolling along the ticker of national sports television stations and Web sites.

He'd been preparing to play college baseball "my whole life," he says. When he was eight, his father, Dr. Michael Wittels, an orthopedic surgeon, installed a batting cage in the family's backyard. When Wittels was an early teenager, he had a propensity to bail out on inside fastballs, so his father enclosed the cage's batter's box with cinder blocks, giving his son no escape route.

Though Wittels says his father is somewhat of a baseball novice, he credits his old man for always supporting him, often very vocally at games.

"Even though he doesn't know that much about baseball, he's always been reading books and trying to learn from other coaches," Wittels says.

There was no great offseason metamorphosis that prepared him, either. Wittels says he merely tried to focus on the mental side of the game, an effort "to slow things down." That has translated into better plate discipline, picking better spots to wield his 33-inch, 30-ounce DeMarini Voodoo aluminum bat.

"As much as anything else, he's swung at more of the good pitches to hit and taking more of the pitches out of the strike zone," FIU coach Turtle Thomas says.

Thomas says he takes no credit for preparing Wittels for this hitting streak, nor did he foresee it happening. And what he's most proud of is that Wittels is the type of player who, even if he's hitless in the ninth inning, will probably take a walk to help the team rather than press and try to get the hit.

"He'd gladly take a walk to win a game [even if] the streak ended," Thomas says.

That was the case on May 2, when FIU trailed Louisiana-Monroe 7-4 in the eighth inning and Wittels, 0-for-3 at the time, took a walk to give the team more baserunners. Fortunately for him, the Panthers rallied and he singled in the ninth.

"Every day, everyone one through nine helps out," he says.

He nearly missed his chance to extend the streak before the end of the season. FIU sat on the NCAA bubble -- truthfully, just on the outside of it -- and lost its first Sun Belt conference tournament game. On the bus leaving the stadium Thomas reminded his team, none of whom had ever won a postseason game, that by playing within themselves and not trying to do too much they could break through the "invisible pressure barrier" that was holding back the team.

Superstitions are so pervasive on this team, in fact, that the coach's wife was barred from attending most of the conference tournament because of the team's poor track record when she shows up. "Every time she comes," sophomore right fielder Mike Martinez says, "we lose." Sure enough, she attended the Panthers' first Sun Belt game, a loss, and then stayed in her hotel room the rest of the tournament as FIU racked off five straight wins to claim the league title.

One of Wittels' other rituals is to give Martinez a handshake before each game. Before playing South Alabama he was in the bathroom when Martinez was introduced in the starting lineup and ran out to his position in right field. Undeterred, Wittels later sprinted from his infield spot all the way to the outfield to give Martinez a handshake, just before the national anthem.

Wittels is so hyper that Martinez, his more laidback classmate, wasn't sure he knew what to make of the infielder at first, though that friendship has now taken a turn straight out of a Paul Rudd movie.

Says Martinez, "I told him, 'At first I couldn't stand you. Now I love you, man.'"

There are times, however, that Wittels is still too excitable, particularly in the field, making him mistake-prone.

"Sometimes he's too amped up to play, like in the conference championship game I switched him and our second baseman mid-game because he made an error or two and was just a little too excited," Thomas says. "He needed to settle down a little bit."

It'll be hard to settle down against Texas A&M, which will not only be a chance to extend his streak to 55 but his first NCAA playoff game and one nationally televised on ESPNU.

Depending on how the Panthers' fare in the double-elimination regional, they'll play at least two games and potentially as many as five games; the latter scenario would give Wittels his shot at history on Monday.

The anti-climactic ending, of course, would be for the Panthers to be eliminated with Wittels' streak still intact and still short of Ventura's record. If that happens, Wittels has threatened to keep his hair growing all offseason.

"That's what he says," Martinez says. "I hope he does it."