Originally Published: March 24, 2011

Swan songs?

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

You recall the story of the ugly duckling that turns into the beautiful swan, right? That metaphorical tale plays out every college baseball season as well. We all see teams that get out to rough starts, playing .500 ball or even sitting below the Mendoza Line, and they are quickly forgotten on the national landscape. But sure enough, there are always teams that molt their ugly feathers and seem to come out of nowhere to pull great postseason runs. I mean, you remember Fresno State in 2008 after its 8-12 start to that season, right? Bingo.

So I'm not saying these are national title contenders, but a handful of teams look pretty ugly now yet could become swans on the main stage of the postseason come the month of June. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Record: 10-10
Current RPI: 60
Good wins: TCU, Oklahoma State (2)
Ugly losses: Eastern Michigan (2)
The beautiful swan factor: Despite all the hype of other Big 12 staffs, the Jayhawks have given up just 68 earned runs and issued 66 walks; both are fourth-best in the conference.

Record: 9-12
Current RPI: 36
Good wins: Baylor, Florida State, Alabama, UCLA, South Carolina
Bad losses: Furman, Kennesaw State
The beautiful swan factor: Alex Wood has come back from Tommy John surgery and beaten both of last year's national title series participants. Beware: stud in the making.

Long Beach State
Record: 11-9
Current RPI: 26
Good wins: Cal State Fullerton, Arizona, Oregon (2), Rice, Oregon State
Ugly losses: None really.
The beautiful swan factor: New coach Troy Buckley is a pitching guru and has the mound corps back to its old ways, with a 2.90 team ERA and Big West-best 155 K's.

Record: 7-6
Current RPI: 56
Good wins: South Alabama (2), Florida Gulf Coast (2)
Bad losses: None
The beautiful swan factor: Yeah, I know, not the greatest "good wins" unless you keep things in perspective. I mean, really … when's the last time you saw an Ivy League team in the top-50 RPI?

Rhode Island
Record: 9-8
Current RPI: 58
Good wins: College of Charleston, Connecticut
Bad losses: Western Michigan, McNeese State
The beautiful swan factor: Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan raved about the Rams' never-say-die style of play this past weekend. Plus, leadoff man Jeff Cammans is hitting .431 with 11 stolen bases.

Georgia Southern
Record: 13-9
Current RPI: 66
Good wins: Georgia Tech, St. John's, Florida
Ugly losses: North Florida, series at Samford
The beautiful swan factor: Reliever Matt Murray (3-1, 0.82 ERA, 2 saves) is a lockdown bullpenner who can keep the Eagles in any game.

Record: 10-10
Current RPI: 47
Good wins: East Carolina, UC Riverside, Coastal Carolina (3)
Ugly losses: Swept by Louisville at home
The beautiful swan factor: The youthful Waves could be coming around, especially after limiting the Chanticleers to three runs and 15 hits in three games this past weekend in Malibu.

Sure plays a mean baseball

By Walter Villa
Special to ESPN.com

When Vanderbilt setup man Mark Lamm and starting catcher Curt Casali chat on the mound, one will invariably ask the other: "How's Tommy?"

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AP Photo/Jason HarlessTim Corbin's staff is bouncing back nicely from Tommy John surgery.

In this case, "Tommy" is not a teammate -- it's a reference to their elbows, because both have had Tommy John surgery.

A third Vanderbilt player, closer Navery Moore, had Tommy John surgery in high school, and all three are big factors on a team that enters the weekend ranked No. 2 in the nation.

The key for the 20-2 Commodores is an exceptionally deep pitching staff that could take them to the College World Series for the first time ever this year. Last week, Vanderbilt put together three straight shutouts and a 32-inning scoreless streak. Two of the shutouts were against Mississippi State in the opening weekend of SEC play.

Lamm is certainly doing his part, recovering from surgery in August of 2009 to give the Commodores' starters a bridge to get to Moore. So far this season, Lamm is 4-0 with an 0.71 ERA in 11 2/3 innings.

Lamm missed the 2010 season but is not only back -- he's better than ever.

"I'm throwing a couple ticks harder," said Lamm, who is working on his master's degree in organizational leadership and considers college coaching one of his options for his postplaying career. "I was throwing 90-93 [mph] before surgery. Now I'm throwing 91-94 and touching 95."

Lamm, who had never had arm problems before, was injured while playing in a summer league but kept trying to pitch through the pain.

"I was naive about my arm," said Lamm, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound right-hander. "For a week, my elbow was killing me. Finally, on one of my warm-up pitches, I didn't hear a pop -- but I definitely felt it. The pain was so bad, it brought me to tears. The umpire asked me if I was OK, and I said 'No.'"

Lamm fought his way back and is now having the best year of his career. But he is far from the only gem on a loaded Vanderbilt team.

The offense features star juniors on the corners: first baseman Aaron Westlake, who won the SEC batting title in 2009, and third baseman Jason Esposito. Both are potential first-round picks.

But while Vanderbilt's offense has pop, their pitching is considered the team's strength. Here are Vanderbilt's starters, with comments from Lamm:

• No. 1 starter Sonny Gray, a projected top-10 pick in this year's MLB draft, has played like that with a 5-0 record and a 1.34 ERA: "What makes him special -- other than the fact that he can throw 95-98 mph -- is that he is the most competitive guy I've ever played with, right along with David Price [now an MLB player]."

• No. 2 Grayson Garvin: "He's a different kid, extremely mature. You always know what you're going to get with Grayson. He's always in a good mood, and on the mound, he is going to pitch inside and work his changeup."

• No. 3 Taylor Hill: "We call him 'The Bear' because he eats anything close to him, and he sleeps a lot. But when he gets on the mound, he's like Sonny -- he competes to the end."

• No. 4 Kevin Ziomek: "He has nasty stuff. I've never seen a freshman throw as many strikes with so many pitches. He's not scared of anything."

Neither is Vanderbilt, which lost 7-6 to Florida State in the deciding game of last year's super regionals and is itching to take the next step.

"Last year, we were 180 feet away from tying the game with FSU," Lamm said. "This year, we are making a real push to get to Omaha."

Places to be this weekend

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

If you have your hands on a Learjet this weekend, here are the places you need to get to, pronto.

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Patrick Green/Icon SMIMichael Roth faces a tough test Friday against Florida.

1. No. 4 South Carolina at No. 1 Florida
By the numbers:
South Carolina: 16-4, 2-1 SEC, RPI No. 14
Florida: 20-2, 3-0 SEC, RPI No. 1
I don't think this one needs a whole lot of hype. It pretty much sells itself, to say the least. Last year, Florida went into Carolina Stadium in late May and won two of three from the Gamecocks, which all but sewed up its national seed in the NCAA tournament while also being a catalyst for Carolina's missing out on a top-eight placement. Things look bleak for the Gamecocks again, right? I mean, they're facing a team that went into Alex Box Stadium and won three straight. The Gamecocks had been hitting a wispy .286 until Tuesday night's 24-run barrage versus Charleston and will need to be at their best to have even a chance in this series. Or so one would think.
Key matchup: Michael Roth versus the Gators' batting order on Friday. This will be the key showdown with the biggest ramifications this weekend. Carolina's Friday ace comes in with numbers of 4-1 and 1.34 with 38 K's and nine walks in 33 2/3 innings, so his quality can't be questioned. But he's coming off his first loss of the season Friday against Georgia and will need to regroup against a very versatile and dangerous Gators bunch that comes in hitting .340.

2. No. 16 Arizona at No. 8 Arizona State
Arizona: 16-5, RPI No. 82
Arizona State: 16-5, RPI No. 9
These two rivals come into this Pac-10 opening weekend from very different paths. ASU is battle-tested and has some impressive wins on its ledger, including a series win at Auburn and a pair of midweek wins over then-No. 2 Oklahoma. The Wildcats are still a mystery team. Sure, they lead the Pac-10 with a .347 batting average and sport an impressive 2.82 team ERA, but they've piled up those stats against the 205th-ranked schedule, according to Boyd Nation's Iterative Strength Ratings. This is either a coming-out party for Arizona to announce that it's back on the national stage or a "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" declaration by the Devils.
Key matchup: The runners versus the catchers. ASU and UA have the most stolen bases in the Pac-10 with 41 and 37, respectively. In fact, the top five base stealers in the conference come from these two mercurial squads, including ASU's Johnny Ruettiger (14-of-19) and UA's Bryce Ortega (12-of-13). But the key is timing. Neither team gives up freebies often to its opponents, as they have stolen just 11 bases off the Wildcats and just two off the Devils so far.

3. No. 6 Texas at Oklahoma State
Texas: 16-5, 3-0 Big 12, RPI No. 21
OSU: 16-5, 1-2 Big 12, RPI No. 64
So far, it appears as if the Pokes have been following the Augie game plan to their good start, pitching at a 2.37 ERA pace and playing .973 defense, both of which are good for second-best in the Big 12. For what it's worth, the Cowboys also hit better than the Longhorns, at .314 compared to UT's weakling-like .257. So what's not to like about the Cowboys' chances here? Well, check out the key matchup first.
Key matchup: Mr. Jungmann, Mr. Stafford, Mr. Knebel versus the Pokes' bats. Taylor, Sam and Corey, two of the weekend starters and their outstanding frosh closer, are going to be unlike anything the Cowboys have seen so far this season. That's what happens when a team plays a schedule ranked at No. 210 and then gets a cold slap of reality. … Well, that is, unless we're horribly underrating coach Frank Anderson's young squad. Feel free to prove us wrong, guys; we'll admit it.

4. No. 2 Vanderbilt at No. 13 Arkansas
Vanderbilt: 20-2, 2-1 SEC, RPI No. 12
Arkansas: 17-4, 1-2 SEC, RPI No. 46
It may be way, way, way too early to say that a team's season is on the brink. But the Hogs will play three of their next five SEC weekends on the road, and one of the two home weekends will be against LSU. So things could unravel quickly unless this youthful squad can pull a confidence-building weekend here. Do I really need to tell you that Vanderbilt counters with a really, really dominant pitching staff? Didn't think so.
Key matchup: The Commodores' arms versus the patience of the Hogs' bats. Led by the blistering BBs of Sonny Gray, who has 46 K's himself already, the Commodores lead the conference by a large margin with 218 strikeouts as a staff. But yes, they will be plying their wares in the electric environment of Baum Stadium, which is a huge X factor here for the Hogs. Keep in mind, the Razorbacks strike out nearly seven times a game on average and will toss out a young (but talented) order in front of VU. I still like the Commodores here.

For the full weekend preview, check out the college baseball blog.

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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