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Kentucky Athletics photo / Drew Gilbert and Tennessee's offense struggled for most of the series at Kentucky, losing 3-2 and 5-2 decisions before erupting late in a 7-2 triumph Saturday afternoon.

Traveling to Kentucky certainly qualified as a snag for Tennessee's top-ranked baseball team.

Lightning delays, rain delays and the inability of the Volunteers to crack Kentucky's pitching resulted in a bizarre trip that yielded 3-2 and 5-2 defeats before Saturday's 7-2 triumph in the series finale. Tennessee had not lost a true road game all season until dropping two in Lexington.

"It was strange," Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said late Saturday afternoon. "It was an odd weekend. Kentucky gave some guys some opportunities in situations they haven't been in before, and those guys capitalized on them. Some of our guys got outside of ourselves in who they are at the plate and on the bases.

"It's something to learn from for sure."

Only Vanderbilt in 2013 and Arkansas last year have won all 10 of their Southeastern Conference series in a season. The Vols (42-6, 20-4 SEC) had won their first seven, sweeping everyone but Alabama and Auburn, but the Wildcats (26-21, 9-15) actually weren't far off from claiming a sweep of their own.

Saturday's finale was shortened to seven innings and was deadlocked 2-2 entering the sixth, but the Vols finally broke free with a Luc Lipcius two-run single in the sixth and a Jordan Beck three-run homer in the seventh.

"I know it was a really down weekend for us," Lipcius said, "so the fact we could scrape away one is really good moving forward."

Thursday night's opener required 13 innings and consumed four hours, 49 minutes and six Vols pitchers.

Kentucky allowed 10 walks in the first five innings, which helped the Vols rack up 12 baserunners, but Tennessee could get only two runs across as a result. A 2-0 lead for the Vols was abruptly erased in the fourth on Kentucky's solo home runs by Oraj Anu and Hunter Jump, and the Wildcats won it in the 13th on Alonzo Rubalcaba's RBI single to left field.

At one point, Tennessee went 31 consecutive at-bats without a hit.

"We started the game with two base hits," Vitello said late Thursday night. "From there, it was not all downhill, but it was a lot downhill. It just seemed painful. I don't know any other way to say it."

The Friday evening matchup was delayed an hour and 43 minutes due to lightning and was suspended by rain in the eighth inning with Kentucky leading 4-2. The game resumed Saturday, with the Wildcats scoring again and posting a 5-2 triumph.

"It's almost like we let off the gas a little bit," Lipcius said. "We didn't play like ourselves. I think it will light a fire to always play our best. I think it was just an off weekend, and I think that's the best way to put it."

Tennessee relief pitcher Camden Sewell retired all eight batters he faced during Thursday's marathon and recorded three strikeouts, but the former Cleveland High School standout winced after a two-out pitch in the seventh inning and was pulled from the game. Vitello explained afterward that Sewell experienced discomfort in the oblique area but wanted to get one more out.

"It didn't make a lot of sense to press the issue," Vitello said.

The Vols will host Bellarmine on Tuesday before hosting Georgia in another Thursday-through-Saturday series.

"At some point of the year, you have to have your worst weekend, or your weekend when you don't play your best," Vitello said. "If you're having a successful year, you might even win on that weekend, but we didn't do that this weekend. This wasn't the norm for our team, but it's something we can take a lot from."

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AP photo by Mark Humphrey / Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman catches a touchdown pass against Purdue during the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30.

Tillman praised

Fifth-year senior receiver Cedric Tillman hasn't received an invitation yet to the 2023 Senior Bowl, but it sure seems as if one will eventually be on the way based on a tweet Saturday morning from Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, who pointed out a Knoxville-to-Mobile receiver pipeline.

"Teammates Jauan Jennings, Josh Palmer and Velus Jones have all taken advantage of the Senior Bowl stage," Nagy posted, "and now it's Tillman's turn."

Tillman entered last season with just eight career catches but amassed 64 receptions for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns.

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

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