Originally Published: May 19, 2011

The teams that need to win -- or else

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

This is always one of the more intriguing weekends of the college baseball season.

It never fails. You can bet on a handful of teams being caught in the dubious position of proving how deceiving preseason polls and early season returns can be. With one weekend of action left before we head into conference tournaments, these are the teams that find themselves firmly behind the eight ball, despite prognostications that had them possibly playing for conference titles and high postseason perches. Put up or shut up time. Here we go:

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Icon SMIPaul Mainieri and LSU are in a must-sweep situation at Mississippi State.

Record: 34-19, 11-16 SEC
This weekend: at Mississippi State
What's at stake: Sitting in last place in the SEC West, the Tigers must sweep the Bulldogs this weekend. And even if they do, there's no assurance that they'll get into the SEC tournament field of eight. Arkansas, MSU, Auburn and Alabama are tied at the top of the West with 13-14 records. The Tigers need some help because finishing in last place in the weaker division of the SEC won't reflect well on them.

Record: 27-26, 12-12 Big East
This weekend: versus Notre Dame
What's at stake: The Cards are in seventh place in the Big East and need to stay ahead of eighth-place teams Seton Hall and South Florida (both 11-13) in order to make the Big East tournament. The 'Ville lost all three games to the Pirates two weeks ago, but did take two of three from the Bulls in mid-April. UND's pitching is third in the Big East with a 2.82 ERA, so you know that means trouble for the Cards, who hit a boney-armed .246 as a team.

Record: 27-23, 11-13 Big 12
This weekend: versus Oklahoma
What's at stake: As of now, the Bears are in fifth place in the Big 12, in other words, leaders of the "have-nots" of the conference. They are being hounded by Missouri, Texas Tech, Kansas State and Kansas, who all are within two games of Baylor in the loss column. Keep in mind that the top eight teams advance to Oklahoma City for the Big 12 tourney. BU's RPI of No. 35 is pretty good, but if the Bears happen to get swept here, things could turn ugly.

Kansas State
Record: 31-21, 9-14 Big 12
This weekend: versus/at Kansas
What's at stake: Staying in the Big 12, the Cats are another team that came into the season with high expectations, but they could see their season end this weekend. They are only a half-game ahead of KU for the final spot in the Big 12 tourney field, and it's anything goes when it comes to these two rivals. K-State also just saw its RPI swan-dive from No. 38 to No. 57 this week.

North Carolina State
Record: 30-23, 12-15 ACC
This weekend: at Boston College
What's at stake: Hard to believe a team that beat Clemson and North Carolina in three-gamers is in jeopardy of having its season end. But now the Pack is tied with Wake Forest for seventh place, and both are trying to stave off ninth-place Virginia Tech, which is on a 10-4 run since mid-April and is 10-17 in the ACC. By the way, the Pack is just 6-11 in road games this year.

Record: 27-26, 15-12 SEC
This weekend: versus Vanderbilt
What's at stake: Yes, the midweek win against Kennesaw State was huge, and every victory from here on out will be big. But can you imagine if the Junkyard Dogs get swept or lose two of three to the Commodores? It makes an appearance in the SEC title game nearly a must for any hopes for a winning record and at-large consideration.

La Stella the right fit at Coastal Carolina

By Walter Villa
Special to ESPN.com

Tommy La Stella, a Yankees fan and Jersey boy by birth, seemed to have the perfect situation.

He was playing college baseball for St. John's, just minutes from his parents' house in Closter, N.J., close enough to drive home and enjoy his mother's Italian cooking on Sundays.

La Stella, a lefty-hitting second baseman, earned four starts and hit .320 as a freshman.

But something wasn't quite right.

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Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesNick Fleece and Texas A&M look forward to a big series with rival Texas this weekend.

Longing to play where baseball mattered more, he had developed an interest in Coastal Carolina after watching the Chanticleers make it to a 2008 super regional against North Carolina.

"It's not a knock on St. John's," La Stella said. "But I saw Coastal as a program on the rise, and I wanted to be a part of it."

La Stella had worked with a hitting coach, Bobby Frassa, who knew Coastal coach Gary Gilmore. A roster spot was available, and La Stella took it, joining a program with diverse talent.

While other programs get all they need in their backyard -- for example, only seven Bulldogs come from outside Georgia, and only six Gators from beyond Florida's borders -- Coastal Carolina has no such luxury.

Gilmore's roster includes players from 18 states, including only five from his South Carolina base.

"Probably every baby in the state -- except mine -- is born rooting for South Carolina or Clemson," Gilmore said. "So we don't get the top recruits. We have to find good athletes who are not yet polished and make them into baseball players."

Given Coastal's nationwide recruiting pattern, La Stella fit right in, even if his decision to transfer was more instinct than research.

"Looking back, it might not have been the smartest thing to do," La Stella said. "I didn't know the depth chart or how I might fit. I just trusted my gut."

La Stella also had to adjust from the fast pace of the New York metropolitan area to life in Conway, S.C., where he found it odd that drivers aren't "flying all over the road, cutting people off."

After sitting out the 2009 season as per NCAA transfer rules, La Stella had a huge year in 2010, starting 64 games and hitting .378 with 14 homers and 66 RBIs.

He also displayed a good all-around game, striking out just 15 times, making only five errors, getting on base 45 percent of the time and stealing successfully on all six of his tries.

His efforts helped Coastal set a school record with 55 wins, including a 25-0 record in the Big South Conference. Coastal earned a No. 4 national seed and won its regional, creating the type of excitement La Stella had longed for at St. John's.

"Baseball is the premier sport on this campus," La Stella said of Coastal. "It's a way of life down here, and I love it."

Coastal's dream 2010 season ended in a super regional with a pair of one-run losses against South Carolina, the eventual national champions.

Nine Coastal players were drafted last year, and five signed. But plenty of talent returns, led by La Stella on offense and fellow junior Anthony Meo (29-7 career record) on the mound.

Coastal (34-17, 18-6) hasn't had quite as much success as last year -- at least not yet. But the Chanticleers have won nine of their past 11, including five shutouts.

Meanwhile, La Stella is having an even bigger year than last season.

He's hitting .407 with 11 homers and 56 RBIs. He has an on-base percentage of .489, has made just five errors, has struck out only 14 times and is 7-of-11 on steals.

La Stella attributes his success to hard work. Instead of going home to New Jersey on Christmas break, he stayed at Coastal and made adjustments to his swing.

"I worked on handling inside fastballs," he said. "I got myself out on that pitch a lot last year. I worked on learning which pitches I could handle, shortening my swing, being more compact and getting rid of wasted movement."

The buzz on La Stella seems to indicate he will get drafted in the first three rounds of next month's Major League Baseball draft, and Gilmore won't argue with that.

"He is one of the most aware kids I've been around," said Gilmore, who is in his 16th season as the head coach at his alma mater and is bidding for his 11th NCAA tournament appearance.

"He pays attention to every aspect of the game. Defensively, he always seems to be moving to the right spot before the ball is even hit. Offensively, he studies every pitch, even when he is not at bat. I have no doubt he will be in the majors someday."

Places to be this weekend

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

Don't have plans this weekend? Here are 10 can't-miss series:

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Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIClemson will have to go through FSU's Sean Gilmartin in Tallahassee this weekend.

1. No. 11 Texas A&M vs./at No. 5 Texas
By the numbers:
A&M: 37-16, 18-6 Big 12, RPI No. 11
UT: 38-12, 17-7 Big 12, RPI No. 10
There is no bigger matchup this weekend. Oh, who am I fooling? There may be no bigger matchup of any season. This rivalry is as intense as it gets. The Thursday matchup will take place at Olsen Field before moving over to Disch-Falk Field at UT for Friday and Saturday. The fact that they are both highly ranked and battling for national-seed status is just gravy for this smorgasbord.

Key matchup: A&M's Nick Fleece and Joaquin Hinojosa vs. UT's Corey Knebel and Hoby Milner. It's obvious that the strength of each team has been the lockdown starting pitching that each has displayed. With talents like John Stilson, Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling going up against Taylor Jungmann, Sam Stafford and Cole Green, these rotations should be fit for an instructional video. But watch for the key relievers here. Fleece and Hinojosa are both seniors, while Knebel is a frosh and Milner is a sophomore. If those two greenhorns get nervous feet in this high-stakes rivalry, look for the Aggies to come out on top, thus winning the Big 12.

2. No. 1 Virginia at No. 13 North Carolina
UVa.: 45-6, 22-5 ACC, RPI No. 2
UNC: 41-12, 17-10 ACC, RPI No. 3
Could the Cavaliers actually lose a weekend series this year? Probably not. Although their fate is mostly sealed, they'll be a No. 1 seed, play at home and be expected to reach Omaha. So don't be shocked to see a letdown here. And Carolina will be hungry for a defining weekend that could cement its national-seed status, since its RPI is surprisingly high (though I'm not sold that UNC really deserves it, but that's for another day's rant). Let's see how the Tar Heels respond as the white-hot spotlights shines down on them.

Key matchup: Carolina working counts vs. Virginia's pinpoint pitching. The Tar Heels' only chance will be if they can work some deep counts from a staff that normally doesn't go into deep counts. The Heels are second in the ACC with 284 walks on the season. As you know, Virginia gives away free passes about as often as Ebenezer Scrooge gave away money to charity, just 114 in 51 games. If UNC can make the Wahoos labor a little more than usual, it's bully for them.

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Larry Lawson/Icon SMIStephen Piscotty and Stanford have the edge in their series against Arizona.

3. No. 15 Clemson at No. 6 Florida State
CU: 37-16, 15-12 ACC, RPI No. 9
FSU: 39-13, 18-9 ACC, RPI No. 4
The Tigers have grown teeth again and enter the weekend matchup at Dick Howser Stadium on a 17-3 spree since tax day. In fact, they've shot up to within three games of the Noles in the Atlantic Division. Now, I'm not saying they'll sweep the weekend in Tallahassee, but this is an experienced team that Jack Leggett takes into the lion's den, and they are looking to get into national-seed discussion. FSU just wants to stay there. Motivation points to CU.

Key matchup: Sean Gilmartin and Brian Busch vs. the left-handed heavy Tigers. The plum & orange has famously struggled against good left-handed pitching recently, and that's what starters Gilmartin and Busch offer on the bump. If they can establish some consistent offense against them and string together some hits, this weekend could be a boon to their postseason at-home hopes.

4. No. 20 Rice at No. 17 Southern Mississippi
Rice: 36-17, 14-7 CUSA, RPI No. 12
USM: 37-13, 15-6 CUSA, RPI No. 16
Yes, you're reading this right: The Owls might not win the Conference USA title. If the Eagles can take this series, it will be just the second time since it arrived from the WAC in 2006 that the name Rice won't appear at the top of the standings. But the bigger picture this weekend is that the winner of this series puts itself in prime position to be a regional host. USM saw its RPI ranking, right or not, jump from 17 to 10 this week.

Key matchup: USM's Collin Cargill vs. the Rice order Owls coach Wayne Graham told me last week that the key to his team is that they have swung the bats better, particularly later in games. Cargill is 6-3 with a 1.24 ERA and eight saves and is a huge key to whether the bats that surround Anthony Rendon will be effective or not. Cargill has given up just five earned runs in 36 innings. FYI, Rendon leads the nation with a head-slapping 72 walks this year.

5. California at No. 21 UCLA
Cal: 28-16, 12-9 Pac 10, RPI No. 34
UCLA: 29-19. 14-7 Pac 10, RPI No. 47
It's bizarre to think that the Bruins have been one of the best teams in the country on Saturdays and Sundays, going 11-3 in their past 14 weekend games. If only they could get off to great starts on Fridays, this team would be downright scary again. The past three weeks have seen the Bears go a tad on the cold side, sporting a 4-7 mark in that span, though their RPI is pretty strong. The Bruins still need a serious RPI boost, and could get it here with a few W's. It didn't help that a power outage ruined their chance at a win over Fullerton on Tuesday.

Key matchup: Cal's Erik Johnson vs. UCLA's offense Since we can go ahead and mark down a W for Trevor Bauer's Saturday start -- he's thrown six straight complete games -- that makes Friday's showdown such a key game. The Bruins have gotten great pitching from Gerrit Cole, but it's their lack of punch on offense that has been their downfall on Fridays. Johnson has given up just six hits in his past 15 innings of work.

6. Arizona at No. 25 Stanford
UA: 32-17, 11-10 Pac 10, RPI No. 29
SU: 28-18, 10-11 Pac 10, RPI No. 23
These two teams are pretty identical on the field and on the stat sheet, as witnessed by their close proximity in the RPI, the Pac 10 standings, pitching staffs and batting orders. The two teams have the top two offenses in the conference with the Cats hitting .326 and the Trees hitting .305. But keep in mind that the Cardinal have played a much tougher slate and should be able to handle the step up. Arizona is also just 8-11 in road games this season. Yep, we can do the math.

7. Florida Atlantic at Florida International FAU: 31-20, 16-11 SBC, RPI No. 56
FIU: 35-16-1, 18-8-1 SBC, RPI No. 32
Obviously this is a big, underrated rivalry and just like last season, these two teams go into their showdown weekend with NCAA bids in their sights. In the last weekend of 2010, FAU knocked the Panthers out of at-large consideration (before FIU rebounded and went on to win the Sun Belt tournament). This time, it's the Panthers who are sitting pretty for a bid to the Big Dance and can send the Owls into golf club mode for the summer. Although FAU's win over Miami on Tuesday was a much-needed positive.

8. Oklahoma State at Texas Tech
OSU: 33-19, 13-10 Big 12, RPI No. 28
TTU: 31-22, 10-14 Big 12, RPI No. 41
This one has big-time ramifications in all directions. At the top of the food chain, the Cowboys have a chance to move past Oklahoma (a series they won in Big 12 play) and into the coveted third slot in the Big 12. That would allow them to avoid the No. 1 team in Oklahoma City next week. Of course it may be faint, but with a sweep here and a good showing at Bricktown, the Pokes have an outside shot at a home regional as well. At the bottom of the food chain, Tech is trying to avoid getting knocked out of the top eight of the conference (the Raiders are seventh right now) and would also love to improve that RPI to inside the top-40.

9. Creighton at Missouri State
CU: 36-13, 12-6 MVC, RPI No. 52
MSU: 31-18, 11-6 MVC, RPI No. 67
The Bluejays and Bears are the top two teams in the Missouri Valley and both are trying their best to gussy up their résumés to get into at-large consideration. Both obviously have their work cut out for them, especially the Jays, who saw their RPI plummet from No. 42 last week. MoState helped its cause with a big win over Oklahoma State on Tuesday, improving their mark to 6-1 versus Big 12 teams. Watch for a key matchup between CU catcher Scott Thornburg (who is hitting .448 in his last 10 games) and reliever Dan Kickham (saved all three games versus Bradley last weekend), who are the reigning MoValley player and pitcher of the week.

10. Wherever the SEC West leaders are playing
No. 2 South Carolina at Alabama
LSU at Mississippi State
Auburn at Tennessee
No. 18 Arkansas at Ole Miss

The SEC West is quite the wild west, dontcha think? Arkansas, Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn are all tied atop the division at 13-14 in conference play going into this final weekend. The recipe is pretty simple as all four teams must avoid getting swept at all costs. If they do that, they should be fine for making the SEC tournament in Hoover. Ole Miss is one game back and LSU is just two games back, both still have a shot at the division title too, although the Tigers could sweep State and still not make the field of eight at the Hoover Met. That would make the NCAA bid a very dicey proposition.

Eric Sorenson, who runs College Baseball Today, is a regular contributor to ESPN's college baseball coverage. Follow Eric on Twitter: @stitch_head

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