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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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?"
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
Special to ESPN.com
If you have your hands on a Learjet this weekend, here are the places you need to get to, pronto.
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.
No. 2 Vanderbilt at No. 13 Arkansas
Maryland at No. 3 Virginia
Wake Forest at No. 5 Florida State
No. 6 Texas at Oklahoma State
No. 7 Oklahoma at Missouri
No. 16 Arizona at No. 8 Arizona State
Kansas at No. 9 Texas A&M
No. 10 LSU at Georgia
No. 11 UC Irvine at Gonzaga
Duke at No. 12 North Carolina
Houston at No. 14 TCU
No. 15 Georgia Tech at Miami
San Diego State at No. 17 Fresno State
No. 18 Cal State Fullerton at Hawai'i
No. 19 Clemson at NC State
No. 20 Auburn at Mississippi State
No. 21 UCLA at USC
UC Santa Barbara at No. 22 Oregon State
Long Beach State at No. 23 Stanford
No. 24 Tulane at Southern Miss
Washington State at No. 25 Cal
College baseball news and notes
Q&A: Steve Rousey
In that magical 2008 season, Fresno State head coach Mike Batesole seemed to push all the right buttons at the right time, as he and his charges bulldogged their way to a national championship. For 2011, it looks as though he has done it again. Only this time, it was the staff addition of new pitching coach Steve Rousey, the former head coach at Cal State Northridge. Rousey has been the main catalyst into transforming the Dogs into one of the best units in the country this season, dropping their team ERA from last year's 6.05 to 2.66 while increasing their strikeouts per nine innings from 6.3 to 8.2. I caught up with the new arms guru in the Valley during this past weekend's sweep of Washington State.
ES: Obviously, there's been a big turnaround from last year's pitching staff here. Did you see a lot of potential in this staff when you got here?
SR: Oh yeah. I mean, first off, they have really good arms. But more importantly, they have a good work ethic, which is just part of their makeup. It's who they are and what I inherited. I also think we've been able to get a lot of work done in terms of simplifying things.
ES: I saw that you guys made a lot of situational changes on the mound tonight.
SR: We're fortunate, too, because we've got a lot of depth. We could do what we did today and throw three different relievers again tomorrow. We actually have some really good pitchers who haven't pitched much because it's a really deep group.
ES: Did you change anything as far as philosophy and approach when you came on here?
SR: Well, philosophically we prioritize fastball command. So for the entire fall workouts, they couldn't throw anything but fastballs and changeups. They had to learn to how to use their fastball. And I think that was probably the biggest thing because they learned they could do that and developed a lot of confidence in their fastball. We throw a lot of fastballs. We probably throw more fastballs than any team in the country, and that's the biggest thing they had to learn. But they did and it's paying off.
ES: I saw your ace, Derek Benny, got roughed up a little in game one versus Washington State. What wasn't working for him?
SR: I think his velocity was down a little bit. Ya know, he's a big, physical guy that needs his fastball to be alive. But I've gotta tell ya, those guys he was facing were really good hitters. That had a lot to do with it, too. But Benny's gotta get his bread and butter going. He's got a good turned-over fastball and a cutter, and even though he's 3-0 he hasn't had that going so far this season. I credit him for doing as well as he's done without his bread-and-butter pitch.
ES: In general, how does this staff compare to some of the ones you've had in the past at Northridge or Long Beach State or even your playing days at Fullerton?
SR: I had a staff in 1993 at Long Beach State that was the best. We had Daniel Choi, the national pitcher of the year, and had probably the best five pitchers I've worked with. But we pitched basically just five guys the entire season. That was it. But this staff here, from 1 to 14, is the best that I've been around, depthwise. There's just really good depth here, and it will pay off for us down the road.
Under the radar: Stony Brook
Freshman Frankie Vanderka, who struck out 13 in only his second start, pitched the first no-hitter in Stony Brook history on Friday, earning a 14-1 win over NJIT. It was also Stony Brook's seventh straight win, its longest streak since 2003. The program, which began in 1973 and moved to Division I in 2000, has made the NCAA tournament three times, including last season, when it eliminated North Carolina State before losing to Coastal Carolina. MLB pitcher and Stony Brook alumnus Joe Nathan recently donated $600,000 to renovate the school's field, which is now named after him. Already this season, Stony Brook (11-5) has swept two games from Michigan and taken two of three from Florida Atlantic, which made the NCAA tournament last year. -- Walter Villa
East Tennessee State (13-5, 5-2) at Stetson (18-4, 5-1)
Take a quick look at the latest RPI from Boyd Nation, and you'll notice one team that jumps off the screen: East Tennessee State. Even though we know the RPI is in major flux this early in the season and should be taken with a sizable grain of salt, it's still interesting to note that the Bucs are No. 16. Not too far away are the Hatters, sitting at No. 31. ETSU has Home Run Derby champion Paul Hoilman, who is off to a .339 start. But pitchers have been careful around the big lumberjack (18 walks), and that means that Dylan Pratt and Bo Reeder actually lead the team with six home runs each. Stetson counters with the best arms staff in the Atlantic Sun with Kurt Schluter (3-0, 2.03) and Lindsey Caughel (3-0, 2.16) and closers Robbie Powell (2-0, 1.08, 4 saves) and Jake Boyd (2-0, 2.30, 2 saves) leading a formidable mound corps with differing styles. The winner here gets a big leg up on the rest of the A-Sun. -- Eric Sorenson
Upset watch: Stanford
Long Beach State (11-9) at Stanford (8-5)
This one has the perfect storm of problems for the Cardinal. First off, they went 15 days without playing a game because of a break for exams, then had their weekend washout of the Michigan series. Then, the Trees played three midweek games this week, leading up to the three-game series versus the Dirtbags. Ace Andrew Gagnon (2-3, 2.20) gives Long Beach a legit shot at any Friday W, but the .239 offense must get some men on base and put pressure on the stout Stanford staff. If Long Beach State can force Stanford to play more on its heels, drag out innings and get some baserunners in motion, things could get interesting against the weary Cardinal. -- Eric Sorenson
Watch out for: Virginia
Best team in the country? Virginia (19-2) is making its case. Last year, Virginia spent most of the season at or near the top of the polls before losing at home to Oklahoma in the super regionals. This year, the Cavs are ranked fifth after sweeping Clemson on the road and taking two of three at home against Florida State in the first two weeks of ACC play. Sunday's loss to FSU snapped a 13-game Virginia win streak, but the three-game series between top-five-type programs lived up to the hype. All three games went extra innings, and all three were decided by one run. Virginia's rotation of Danny Hultzen, Will Roberts, Tyler Wilson and Cody Winiarski has been outstanding, and closer Branden Kline has eight saves. -- Walter Villa
What we're reading
• Jeff Sackmann of College Splits delivers the season's first set of college baseball power rankings, with the Virginia Cavaliers coming in at the No. 1 spot. Vanderbilt, Clemson, FSU and Florida round out the top five.
Capital One Cup
The Capital One Cup rewards the best Division I men's and women's programs in the country for their on-the-field performance throughout the year. For more information about the Cup, visit capitalonecup.com.