TJ Johnson, Cedar Rapids Prairie blank Ottumwa, 5-0, in 4A baseball substate semifinal

Prep baseball: Fifth-ranked Hawks (28-12) a win away from return to state tournament

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CEDAR RAPIDS — A midseason resurgence has Cedar Rapids Prairie on the verge of a return to the prep baseball state tournament.

A big ingredient has been senior TJ Johnson.

The relief pitcher-turned-starter tossed seven shutout innings, walked one and struck out four as the fifth-ranked Prairie Hawks defeated Ottumwa, 5-0, in a Class 4A substate semifinal Monday night at Prairie High School.

“All I had to do was throw strikes,” Johnson said. “I had my defense behind me to back me up. They made plays. We had no errors tonight. Everything was working out for us.”

Prairie (28-12) will visit seventh-ranked Southeast Polk (27-14) in a substate final Wednesday at 7 p.m.

With a victory, the Hawks will earn the right to defend last season’s Class 4A state title. Those prospects appeared to be in question three weeks ago, when seven losses in 10 games left Prairie hovering above the .500 mark at 14-10.

Since then, the Hawks are 14-2.

“The guys stuck together,” Prairie Coach Todd Rima said. “We tried to move some guys around. We tried a few different things and the guys have responded. To their credit, they’ve got this thing going and I’m really proud of them.”

The emergence of Johnson has been a significant boost. In three starts, Johnson has issued two walks and allowed two runs in 20 innings. Monday night was his second complete-game shutout in a row, which he closed in dominating fashion by retiring 16 of the final 19 Ottumwa batters.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Rima said. “He’s really picked us up. What he does is, he throws strikes. … He goes right at hitters. What he has brought to us leadership-wise on the mound, late, he could be one of the big differences in getting us going.”

The Prairie offense got going in the bottom of the second inning when Johnson’s battery mate Griffen Clark laced a one-out double down the third-base line, which scored senior Matt Lorenz.

“I got ahead in the count,” Clark said. “The guys ahead of me did a great job getting on base and put me in position for a great timely hit. That’s what it’s all about.”

A two-out single to center field from sophomore Hunter Whinery scored Clark’s courtesy runner Jaylynn Smith, and the Prairie lead was 2-0 after two frames.

The Hawks added a run in the third inning when Johnson led off with a walk and his courtesy runner Caleb Fuller slid home just before an inning-ending rundown between first and second base.

“You get hits, you get runs, you get good pitching and not a lot of free bases,” Johnson said. “And stuff starts going your way.”

Sophomore Logan Burg doubled and scored in a two-run fifth inning. Senior Levi Usher walked and scored on a throwing error.

Ottumwa ends at 24-16.

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