When Cologne punched its ticket to the State Amateur Baseball Tournament for the first time since 1972 on Aug. 3, Manager Craig Pexa proudly exclaimed,
"Hey guys, we get Christian back!"
After spending five weeks in the Northwoods League playing for Kalamazoo, Johnson returned to Minnesota this week.
Pitching on short rest, having thrown 72 pitches in Kalamazoo's final game Tuesday, Aug. 13, Johnson worked out the kinks early on, dominating the next five frames. He showed why he's been the Hollander ace this season.
"He called me Wednesday driving home. 'I'm starting Saturday, no question about it.' He told me he was good to go and that was it, he was pitching," Pexa said. "Before the game, I didn't hear this until today, he told Bomber (catcher Tim Swanson) he'd never been as nervous for a game. Not even when he was with the (Kalamazoo) Growlers."
Johnson struck out 12 batters, setting down the side twice, leading Cologne to a 5-2 win over tournament veterans Hadley on Aug. 17 in Delano.
Cologne will play in the second round at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 24 in Maple Lake versus Region 8 champion Nisswa.
"Christian's a competitor. He's been that for us all year. He was incredible."
An unearned run in the sixth inning the lone blemish on Johnson's pitching line, seven innings, four hits, two walks, 12 of 28 batters struck out.
Tied at one in the seventh inning, Cologne broke through for four runs. Joey Lilya, who opened the scoring for the Hollanders with an RBI-single in the second inning, scoring Kyle Brazil from second base, started the threat.
A single and stolen base from Lilya, who reached base three times, set-up a first and third situation with two outs, Casey Clemensen drawing a walk.
A pick-off attempt went awry, allowing Lilya to score the go-ahead run. Another error led to a second run before Kyle Brazil and Anthony Brenner made the Buttermakers pay with back-to-back run-scoring hits, capped by a double and a 5-1 lead.
"(Joey) came to us three years ago and we had 20 guys on the roster. I didn't know how much playing time he'd get. Jason Kuerschner and I talked with him for a while and ultimately we decided to give him a jersey. We said why not. He beats Plato that year, he hits around .300. He's been a diamond in the rough. He hits, he pitches, he can play outfield, second base, third base. Once we put him in the outfield with Tanner (Luebke) and Zack (Nelson), man can we cover some ground out there," Pexa said.
Watertown draftee Zach Iten worked the final two innings to close the door on the opening round win.
Brenner hit a pair of doubles with Carter Clemensen collecting two hits as well.
"I think we were too young to get nervous. Nothing rattles these kids at this point. Maybe frustration gets them more. We had a little more giddy up with Christian there," Pexa said.
"The other thing, I think we relaxed a bit when we scored that first run. That was huge, getting Christian a lead. We'll have the same mentality next week. We're going to bunt, we're going to take bases, be aggressive, try to add runs each inning," the manager said.
While the game was a success on the field for Cologne, behind the scenes, before the game, the Hollander faithful was a factor. More than 25 fans and parents joined the team on a bus. Another 100-200 fans dressed in orange showed up to join them, creating quite the buzz in Delano.
"Delano came to us, they wanted us there. The history, being back for the first time in 47 years, they were happy to host us, get a good draw. They said as we left, 'Hope to see you again in two weeks.' I told the guys, let's play like we belong here. We're a good baseball team. We do belong to be here," Pexa said.
"The support was great and I'm sure it will be even better next weekend."
Cologne's opponent, Nisswa, beat Fort Ripley twice in the Region 8C Tournament to gain the top seed. It is the Lightning's sixth state appearance in nine years, the first since 2016.
Drew Boland was the Region 8 MVP as a lead-off hitter and center fielder, finishing 8-for-16 with a home run and four doubles, eight RBIs and six runs scored in four games.
LUVERNE 4, CARVER 3
When Carver scored two runs in the sixth inning, it felt like that might be enough to beat Luverne.
A no-hitter through six innings for Black Sox starter Andrew Weber, three more outs were needed to get to closer Jacob Booden.
Luverne, though, aided by Carver's defense, put together three hits, scoring four runs, all with two outs, to eliminate the Black Sox 4-3 on Aug. 17 in Maple Lake.
It was the second first-round exit for Carver, making its third consecutive state tournament appearance.
Scoreless, hitless, through 4 1/2 innings, Carver scored twice in the sixth on a Bryce Tuma single, plating Kyle Dalton and Sam Warner.
Luverne countered, putting together the seventh-inning rally off Weber -- a final line of 6 2/3 innings, three earned runs and three hits with four walks and six strikeouts -- and draftee Ryan Grams of Brownton.
A 4-2 hole, Carver got a run back in the seventh inning, a Warner sacrifice fly to score Trent Seamans. The Black Sox, though, stranded three runners in scoring position over the final three innings.
Tuma collected two of Carver's five hits.
Booden kept the Black Sox in the game late, striking out five of six batters faced over the final two innings. He struck out the side on just nine pitches in the eighth inning.