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Ascending the ranks


Erica Caldwell/Charlotte Knights
Chicago White Sox pitching prospect Erik Johnson has gone from Double-A Birmingham to Triple-A Charlotte this season.

Pitcher Erik Johnson continues to climb the organizational ladder of the Chicago White Sox, rising from Single-A to Triple-A in a year. But the Los Altos High graduate takes his success one step – and one start – at a time.

“Like any year, I’ve been learning a lot,” said Johnson, promoted to the Charlotte Knights in June after going 8-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 14 starts for the Double-A Birmingham Barons. “I try to take away something new with every start I make. … For me, it really comes down to what I’m doing down there (on the field). It’s always just me and the (catcher’s) glove. It’s a tough game and a long season, so really the simpler I can keep it, the better.”

The focused Johnson was a standout starter at UC Berkeley prior to being chosen by the White Sox in the second round of the 2011 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.

In 2012, his first full year of minor-league ball, the right-hander jumped from low Single-A Kannapolis to high Single-A Winston-Salem by midseason.

Johnson finished the campaign with a 6-5 record and a 2.53 ERA in 17 starts, while posting a nearly 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the season.

Others took notice of Johnson’s solid season. Baseball America, for one, ranked the Mountain View native as the No. 4 prospect in the White Sox organization, as well as its top pitching prospect.

Johnson, however, said he’s unaffected by glowing scouting reports or rankings. His focus remains on the one thing he can control – his performance on the field.

“I don’t read anything into that; it’s singular focus for me and keeping it on the field,” said Johnson, who is 2-0 with a 1.85 ERA in five starts for Charlotte. “It really comes down to each start – you can’t think past your next start. It’s just taking it day-by-day, working hard, staying focused and staying healthy.”

Prior to starting the season with Birmingham, Johnson earned an opportunity to participate in his first spring training with the big-league club in Arizona. The non-roster invitee said he cherished the chance to spend time in the same clubhouse and on the same field as Chicago’s major-leaguers.

“That’s the biggest part I wanted to take in as a goal – learn as much as I can while I was there,” said Johnson, who arrived at camp in late January. “I was always listening and watching some of the older guys throw their bullpens. … Just being out there and facing big-league hitters (in exhibition games) was the opportunity I wanted.”

Johnson’s steadfast focus hasn’t prevented him from realizing how important off-the-field supporters have been to his career. He noted that family and friends back home have provided unwavering support during his career – from as far back as high school. Johnson’s parents have traveled to see him play at Birmingham and Charlotte this season and watch his starts online as well. Sandy Wihtol, his coach at Los Altos High, calls every few weeks to check in on his former baseball pupil.

“It’s nice to have them there to support me as much as they can,” said Johnson, who added that he chats by phone with his parents after every start. “For me, it’s really a family and community support structure.”

Major League rosters expand from 25 to 40 players in September, but Johnson said he hasn’t let the thought of being among those called up to creep into his head. As usual, Johnson’s focus remains on the diamond – and away from any speculation.

“I don’t think I’ve surprised myself, because baseball is one of those things I’ve always excelled at,” he said. “It’s about me just climbing and trying to reach that goal of mine. … It always comes down to just me and that glove again.”

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