Photo Credit: Ian Cox/ Tennessee Athletics
By Tucker Harlin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – No. 24 Tennessee lost to No. 17 Kentucky 10-0 in a long and muggy series finale in Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
With the loss, Tennessee (35-17) fell to 14-13 in SEC play and allowed Kentucky (35-15, 15-12 SEC) to stay ahead of it in the SEC East standings.
“It was a pretty good effort by the guys to show up the way they did today, despite being up 2-0,” said Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello. “All the way through the game, we just didn’t have any results to show for offensively.”
The Kentucky bats were firing at Drew Beam early as Jackson Gray rolled a lead off single into center field. Two batters later, Hunter Gilliam hit a ball that just cleared the wall in center field, giving the Wildcats a two-run advantage. Jase Felker singled and stole second base, and Devin Burkes brought Felker home with a double off the wall in left field, stretching the lead to three.
The second inning saw more fireworks from Kentucky as Grant Smith hit a solo shot to right center, bolstering the lead to four. A Ryan Waldschmidt walk signaled the end of Drew Beam’s day after one and two thirds of an inning.
“Usually there’s pretty good location to both sides of the plate,” Vitello said about Beam. “But I think some pitches, especially when he’s ahead in the count, miss over the middle or the heart of the plate, and there’s also been occasions where he’s been behind in the count more than normal. Ultimately, if you break it down, whether it’s this team we just played or another one, if you’re in the center of the plate too often, bad things can happen.”
AJ Russell came in for Beam and threw for one and a third, but his day was cut short when the game underwent a two-hour pause for a lightning delay. Other than forcing each team to change pitchers, the delay had very little effect on the outcome of the game.
Tennessee had an opportunity to make things interesting in the fourth inning. Zane Denton doubled to left field, and Cal Stark and Maui Ahuna were later hit by pitches to load the bases. Instead, Hunter Ensley watched the third strike pass by and Tennessee allowed Kentucky reliever Darren Williams to escape the jam.
Kentucky’s bats appeared to return strong in the fifth inning as Ryan Waldschmidt nailed the center of the batter’s eye to take the lead up to five. However, Tennessee reliever Seth Halvorsen quieted any kind of sustained offense as he struck out three Wildcats in a row.
“It was good,” Vitello said about Halvorsen’s performance. “He’s not going to agree with that, but that was his last hitter no matter what. We got him to a pitch count he has not been at, so I don’t think he’s going to use that as a crutch.”
Tennessee had another shot to score some runs in the fifth inning as both Dylan Dreiling and Griffin Merritt took walks. Zane Denton hit a ball deep to left field, but it came up just short of the wall and ended the inning.
The sixth inning was almost an exact repeat of the fifth for Tennessee at the plate. Maui Ahuna hit a double to right field with two outs, and Hunter Ensley followed that up with a walk. Blake Burke ended the inning with yet another fly out to left field.
The seventh saw more of the same as Tennessee found itself in a two-out hole early on. Griffin Merritt took a walk and Zane Denton blooped a single to center field. Christian Scott missed the wall in left field by a few inches and that was the seventh inning.
Kentucky found a little more life at the plate in the eighth inning. Devin Burkes hammered the scoreboard with a two-run homer to grow the lead to seven. This ended Seth Halvorsen’s day, and Aaron Combs’ outing began with a James McCoy solo home run to the flagpoles.
The eighth inning saw a promising start as Kavares Tears singled and Maui Ahuna walked. All hopes of scoring were quickly washed away as Hunter Ensley grounded into a double play and Blake Burke flew out to left field.
“I probably jinxed it because I looked at that stat for our team and compared it to other teams in the SEC,” Vitello said about all the runners left on base. “If you look at it, it’s interesting. Two years ago, we had a pretty good team, and it’s probably not a very good answer, but to leave them on base you have to get them on base. You’ll see a lot of the best and productive offenses have that as a high number. I thought when we pushed that first one across others would come, but it was an odd day, and as always it takes two to tango. We’re within decent striking distance when a guy walks five, and you or someone else is going to make them pay. They made a couple of good plays defensively, and we just didn’t get that first one across, and who knows what would have happened if we would have.”
The Wildcats had a few runs left in them as Jackson Gray came home on a sacrifice fly. A couple of singles from Jase Felker and Devin Burkes led to the final run and put Kentucky ahead 10-0.
Tennessee will take on Belmont Tuesday for its final midweek contest of the season. The game is at 6:30 p.m. ET and will be televised on SEC Network+.