Wittels streak on the line
MIAMI — When the NCAA baseball tournament begins this weekend, the Coral Gables Regional will be streak central.
Miami will be in the national field for the 38th consecutive year, extending its record. And Florida International’s Garrett Wittels — with his 54-game hitting streak, now four shy of matching Robin Ventura’s Division I record — is making the short trip there as well.
FIU was sent Monday to Coral Gables for the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. The third-seeded Golden Panthers (36-23) will face second-seeded Texas A&M (40-19-1) on Friday, and top-seeded Miami (40-17) meets fourth-seeded Dartmouth (26-17).
“When we have a chance to put teams in a location where they can hop on a bus and avoid the hassles of time zones and whatnot, we try to do that,” NCAA tournament committee chairman Tim Weiser said.
Forget the bus. FIU could practically jog back and forth this weekend. The Golden Panthers’ campus is just 8 miles away from Alex Rodriguez Park — the stadium the Hurricanes call home.
“Late in the year you’re always matched up with everyone else’s best,” Wittels said. “It’s win or go home basically. I know it’s two-game elimination, but every game really counts.”
And there’s a chance FIU and Miami — longtime rivals — could meet before the weekend is over. The teams played at least once in every season from 1973 through 2008, before deciding not to continue the series in either the 2009 or 2010 regular seasons for a variety of reasons.
“I’m glad we are a host and I’m looking forward to this weekend,” said Miami catcher Yasmani Grandal, widely expected to be among the first picks in this year’s major league draft. “We need to take full advantage of the opportunity we have of playing in front of our fans at our home park.”
For its part, Miami is thinking more about Dartmouth, not FIU, since it’s no guarantee the neighbors will play each other.
“We need to build a good game plan around all three teams,” Grandal said. “It’s a clean slate now for everyone.”
Miami leads the all-time series 91-24, but FIU won the last game the schools played in 2008. The Golden Panthers have been coached the last two seasons by Turtle Thomas, a former member of Jim Morris’ staff at Miami. Thomas was at Miami from 1988 through 1999, helping the Hurricanes reach the College World Series nine times in those 12 years.
Thomas didn’t mind the nearby regional, of course. FIU secured an automatic berth in the field by winning the Sun Belt Conference tournament in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on Sunday, then needed nearly 18 hours for the bus ride back to Miami.
“We knew we were going to be on the road, no question about it and no matter where you play, you are on the road,” Thomas said. “I don’t care if it’s 15-20 minutes from here or if it’s at Florida or UCLA. That’s the bottom line, we are going to be on the visiting team.”