KNOXVILLE -- With a key SEC series win at stake on Sunday afternoon, Tennessee and Florida hardly resembled two baseball teams that spent Friday night and Saturday afternoon deadlocked in nip-and-tuck affairs.
The fourth-ranked Gators quickly imposed their will to take the rubber match easily.
Florida scored four first-inning runs and led by eight runs after four frames in a series-clinching 8-1 win at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
"I hope everyone can tell that I'm a competitor and I don't like losing, but I walk away with a different feeling today," first-year Volunteers coach Dave Serrano said. "We just got beat."
Though the Vols (21-15, 7-8 SEC) were out of it early against a Florida program that lost in the national-championship series last season, Serrano reiterated how proud he was of his team. Relievers Dalton Saberhagen and Conner Stevens threw five innings of scoreless relief, and UT scraped out a ninth-inning run to avoid the shutout.
"There was no quit," Serrano said. "I can walk away, not happy that we lost, but proud that we continued to compete through nine innings. That's all we ask our guys to do."
Florida pitcher Brian Johnson helped himself with the big hit, a three-run double in the first-inning onslaught. Vickash Ramjit smacked a solo home run to left in the second. Johnson scattered six hits in six scoreless innings on the mound for the Gators (28-8, 9-6), who bounced back from losing their top ranking after dropping a series last weekend to LSU with a midweek win against No. 1 Florida State and this weekend's series win.
Still, the Vols stand at the halfway mark of the SEC schedule with as many league wins as they had all of last season. UT handled that in Saturday's 5-4 win. Richard Carter delivered the go-ahead run with a sacrifice bunt, and a third-to-first double play ended the game after Florida loaded the bases.
The Vols, who haven't reached the SEC tournament since 2007, sit in a four-way tie for fifth with Georgia, Auburn and Ole Miss.
"My realistic goal is the SEC tournament," Serrano said. "In the future, it'll be way beyond that. I know we're not there as a program, and that's why we took down the sign in the locker room that says, '921 Miles to Omaha.'
"All we're trying to do is win the next pitch. When this program gets to where we want it to be, then it's going to be Omaha [the site of the College World Series]."
The three-game attendance for the weekend was 9,561, the second-highest mark for a weekend series in program history. Serrano again expressed his confidence that he, his staff and his team would bring UT baseball back.
"We're right in the thick of it," Serrano said. "That's where I anticipated us being, to be honest with you. There might be a lot of people surprised by where we're at right now, but it's why I came back.
"I wanted to get this program back in the SEC tournament. It's not just me; it's the coaching staff and the players that have the same commitment."
UT hosts East Tennessee State on Tuesday before traveling to Mississippi State next weekend.