Three Strikes: May 10

Strike One: Mean Green Machine

Dartmouth went 22 years between trips to regionals before getting over the hump last year. The wait was a lot shorter this time around.

The Big Green punched the first ticket to the NCAA tournament this weekend, winning the best-of-three Ivy League championship series at Columbia. Dartmouth will now appear in regionals in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1969-70.

Columbia drubbed Dartmouth, the Ivy's preseason favorite, 13-2 in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader, but the Big Green is a resilient lot. Behind a huge day from freshman catcher Chris O'Dowd (4-for-5, 4 R, 5 RBI, HR, 2B), Dartmouth survived a slugfest, 15-10, to force a decisive third game Sunday.

O'Dowd, who leads Dartmouth in batting (.375), on-base percentage (.481) and slugging (.644), had two more hits in an 11-5 win Sunday, part of a balanced 17-hit attack that included at least one hit from all nine starters. Dartmouth was clinging to a 5-4 lead before breaking the game open with four runs in the seventh, capped by senior Brett Gardner's two-run single.

And the Big Green finally slowed Columbia's hot bats, as freshman lefty Kyle Hunter allowed four runs on seven hits over 5 2/3 innings, and sophomore righty Cole Sulser gave up just one run run on three hits over 3 1/3 innings of relief. The duo combined to strike out 11.

Hunter (2-0, 3.66) and Sulser (7-0, 3.91 with four saves and a 54-9 strikeout-walk ratio in 51 innings) have put together solid seasons for the Big Green, but veterans senior lefty Robert Young and sophomore righty Kyle Hendricks  have been the top two starters for two years, and both have NCAA tournament experience. Dartmouth will need them to bounce back from rough outings this weekend if it is to make a surprise run in a regional.

But for now, Dartmouth can step back and enjoy being champion of the Ivy League, once again.

Strike Two: Costantino Can Breathe Easy . . . For Now

The longest hitting streak in NCAA history—60 games—belongs to Damian Costantino of Division III Salve Regina (R.I.). His record survived a serious challenge this weekend, but Costantino isn't out of the woods yet.

In one of the most impressive individual accomplishments of the 2010 season, Cal State Dominguez Hills junior outfielder Kevin Pillar ran his hitting streak to 54 games before going 0-for-2 in the first game of a doubleheader against top-ranked UC San Diego in the California Collegiate Athletic Association tournament finals on Saturday. He was intentionally walked in his final at-bat of the game, and he was hit by a pitch earlier in the contest. He fell four games shy of matching former Oklahoma State third baseman Robin Ventura's 58-game hitting streak, the longest in Division I history.

Last week, Pillar set the Division II record, passing Florida Southern's Nick Diyorio, who hit in 49 straight games four years ago. Sitting on a 48-game hitting streak going into a doubleheader against Cal State Stanislaus last Saturday, Pillar went hitless in his first three at-bats, then doubled in the sixth inning to tie the record. He broke it with another double in his first at-bat of the second game.

Meanwhile, Florida International sophomore second baseman Garrett Wittels' hitting streak is still going. Wittels extended his streak to 42 games with an infield hit in the eighth inning Sunday against Arkansas State. It's the longest Division I streak since 1996, when Chuck Abbott hit in 42 straight for Austin Peay State. It's also the fourth-longest in D-I history, behind only Ventura, Wichita State's Phil Stephenson (47 games in 1981) and Arizona State's Roger Schmuck (45 in 1971).

We highlighted Wittels in Weekend Preview on April 23, when his streak was at 31 games.

"Garrett is an extremely talented and hard-working sophomore," Florida International coach Turtle Thomas said then. "He is typically a line-drive hitter who hits a lot of singles and doubles. He hits very well to all fields and has a great concept of the strike zone. His plate discipline, plan for each at-bat, and overall work ethic are the keys to his success at the plate this season. He knows what is a strike and what is a ball and which pitches he can handle. He has a plan for each at-bat and tries not to deviate from it. He is also one of those players that is constantly working, during practice and on his own, to get better. Many times we have to tell him to slow down and take a break."

Next up for Wittels and the Panthers: South Alabama next weekend.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Wes Cunningham

Murray State coach Rob McDonald grew up playing baseball with future big leaguer Kevin Seitzer. Watching Seitzer rack up hit after hit, McDonald learned when a hot streak is more than just a hot streak.

"I remember in American Legion ball the first year I ever played with him, you said, 'Man, what a hitting streak this guy's on,' " McDonald said. "Then at the end of the year you realize that he hit like that all year—it's not a streak.

"That's how Wes has been. He's been at .420-.450 all season and he just stays there. When you're 2-for-5 and your batting average goes down, that's a high level."

So when Cunningham, Murray State's senior first baseman, went 7-for-11 with a double, a triple, a home run and 12 RBIs in this weekend's sweep of Eastern Kentucky, McDonald was nonplussed.

"This weekend was very typical—this was not a special weekend for him. I think he only had one home run this weekend," McDonald said. "It was just a very normal weekend for him; it's career stuff for most people."

Cunningham's "very normal" weekend raised his season line to .438/.509/.870 with 18 home runs and 72 RBIs in 185 at-bats. He leads the nation in RBIs and ranks second in slugging, OPS (1.379) and total bases (161). And McDonald emphasizes that Murray State plays in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Cunningham was far from a household name coming into this year, but his monstrous season did not exactly come out of nowhere. He hit .411/.468/.698 with 11 homers and 52 RBIs as a junior last year, but went undrafted. So he kept on hitting with wood bats in the Jayhawk League, where he batted .402 and ranked as the circuit's No. 1 prospect. Scouts last summer lauded Cunningham's high-energy style and his gap-to-gap lefthanded swing, but they questioned what position he would play in pro ball.

Cunningham arrived at Murray State as a catcher, moved to the outfield as a sophomore and then slid to first base last year. He has above-average speed (he ran a 6.6-second 60-yard dash at a workout last summer), and McDonald said he has a strong throwing arm as well, leading the coach to believe he has a shot to play a corner outfield position in pro ball. He'll have some work to do in the outfield, but Cunningham has never shied away from hard work. McDonald said the coaches often have to drag him out of the weight room.

That's part of the reason Cunningham has developed into such an accomplished power hitter. But more than that, he is a hitter—period.

"First of all, he has a tremendous ability to just get the barrel on the ball, whether it's a good swing, bad swing, whether he's fooled a bit, whether it's in, out, fast, slow—he gets the barrel on the ball," McDonald said. "He's done it with wood in the summer, and he of course does it with aluminum. He's got outstanding hand-eye coordination, but he's also very strong, very fast, very explosive. He's been a big-time clutch guy for us, and he hits everybody. He hits the best pitchers, and that guy that frustrates everybody but doesn't really seem that good—he hits those guys too. He just hits all the time."