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Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee infielder Jake Rucker had one of the four solo home runs for the fifth-ranked Volunteers on Sunday afternoon during their 10-4 loss to second-ranked Vanderbilt.

Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello needed little time to respond late Sunday afternoon when asked how he would describe this weekend's three-game series against visiting Vanderbilt.

"Insanely valuable."

The first series between the state rivals with both ranked in the nation's top five went to the Commodores, who broke away Sunday for a 10-4 thumping that was mostly the result of seven two-out runs. Vanderbilt won Friday night's opener 5-0 behind a stellar outing from starting pitcher Kumar Rocker, but the Volunteers bounced back Saturday for an 8-4 triumph behind three home runs and six RBIs from Evan Russell.

Vanderbilt has been college baseball's reigning national champion for quite a while now, given the outbreak of the coronavirus wiping out last year's NCAA tournament, while Tennessee began this season with the goal of reaching the College World Series for the first time since 2005.

"I literally can't put it into words," Vitello said on a Zoom call. "I like to think that we don't bow down to any other programs in our league, but if you look at the College World Series, it's automatic that there are going to be a minimum of two SEC teams in there, and there is almost always one SEC team in the final.

"This was a weekend that was hyped up by you guys, and it was incredibly intense throughout the weekend. You need to experience that and kind of navigate your way through it."

The second-ranked Commodores improved to 28-6 overall and 11-4 in SEC play, while the Vols dropped to 29-8 and 10-5.

Vanderbilt counterpart Tim Corbin was quick to comment on the intensity of this series as well, with an announced 2,450 fans attending Sunday's game at 4,283-seat Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The Commodores play their home games at Hawkins Field, where attendance this season has been capped at 710 spectators per game due to social distancing guidelines.

"I don't know what we're doing in Nashville, but there aren't many empty seats here," Corbin told the Tennessean after Sunday's game. "Let me just tell you, COVID does not exist in Knoxville. There are a lot of people here having a good time, and sometimes at our expense.

"We just needed to do our part to play baseball. They created a very good atmosphere for baseball, and I credit them."

Tennessee took a 2-1 lead in the first inning on consecutive homers by Max Ferguson and Jake Rucker, but the Commodores broke free with two runs in the third and three in the fourth. Commodores designated hitter Jack Bulger went 3-for-4 with two RBIs, while leadoff batter Enrique Bradfield reached base four times, stole four bases and scored three runs.

The Commodores chased Tennessee starter Blade Tidwell out of the game early in the fourth inning, with Tidwell allowing six hits and four runs and recording just nine outs.

"From my vantage point, I saw some pitches kind of get floated — or it was the opposite of throwing it with conviction," Vitello said. "We kind of talk about the ball doing what you tell it to do, and if you don't throw it with conviction, you're usually going to pay the piper. When you're facing a talented team, the odds of that go up.

"For Blade, it was just a little bit off the rails for whatever reason today. It just kind of seemed off for him."

Ferguson, Rucker, Russell and Jackson Greer accounted for Tennessee's homers, with a Luc Lipcius single the only other hit by the Vols.

Tennessee, which hosts Tennessee Tech on Tuesday before heading out to Texas A&M, is halfway through its league schedule. The last time the Vols were 10-5 in SEC play was the last year they reached the CWS.

"In this league, people say that if you go .500, you're going to have a good year," Vitello said. "Well, we're greedy for more."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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