BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Micah Johnson is like gravel in a pitcher's spikes. It's impossible to ignore him.
After Johnson led off the first inning of the Southern League playoff opener with a single Thursday, Tennessee pitcher Nick Struck threw over to the bag to hold him close four times. Johnson bluffed toward second base but retreated, knowing No. 2 hitter Cody Puckett probably would get a fastball to hit.
When Johnson eventually took off to steal the base, one out later, Trayce Thompson banged a one-hopper back to the mound. Struck grabbed it and then tried to force Johnson — a bad idea. The throw was high and Johnson slid into the bag safely as Javier Baez leaped over him to catch the ball.
Johnson then made third base his goal. He broke on the front end of a double steal and catcher Rafael Lopez opted to try to get the trail runner, Thompson, at second base. All hands were safe. It was the 85th base that Johnson had stolen since his season began with low-Class A Kannapolis. He has advanced two levels since then, and knows well that two more get him to the American League.
"Obviously that would be a dream come true,'' Johnson said. "I know there are things I have to work on in the offseason, especially my defense. … I think if I can focus, be consistent day in and day out, I'll get to Chicago. I want to get there as fast as I can, before these legs get old.''
The 22-year-old second baseman was a ninth-round pick of the White Sox in the 2012 draft out of Indiana University. He batted a combined .312 with seven homers and a .373 on-base percentage between three levels this season while leading minor league baseball in stolen bases.
Johnson stole 84 bases in 110 tries. That was nine more than Reds speedster Billy Hamilton had with Triple-A Louisville after setting a record with 155 last season.
"He's such a threat,'' Birmingham manager Julio Vinas said. "Speed plays every time. When he gets on base, there's a good chance he's going to score a run.''
The odd thing about Johnson's emergence this season is that he was more of a hitter than a sprinter in college. He started all 55 games his freshman season but stole only six bases while hitting 11 home runs, apparently saving his speed for his flag football team. With Birmingham Barons teammate Michael Earley as the quarterback, the baseball players won a championship.
"We beat the fraternities,'' said Johnson, a product of Park Tudor School in Indianapolis. "That was so much fun.''
Injuries have marked Johnson's career. He missed his senior season of high school because of surgery to repair his left shoulder, a huge disappointment after he hit .561 as a junior, and was limited to 24 games as a college junior, needing to have the ulnar nerve in his right elbow repaired.
He has been a good hitter wherever he played and used aluminum bats to drive the ball into gaps and sometimes over fences. But he had only four homers in 69 games in rookie ball, and that convinced him he would have to use his feet to climb the minor league ladder, not his powerful upper body.
"I watch the game a lot,'' said Johnson, who stole 19 bases last season. "I put together a plan. I have some speed. I don't have Billy Hamilton speed, but I have some speed. I'm not a power hitter, so I have to do what I can to make it to the big leagues. Speed is going to do that for me.''
The left-handed-hitter uses the whole field. He breaks quickly from the batter's box, collecting infield singles.
"When I got called up here, I figured the fielders would be so good that I couldn't get infield hits,'' he said. "The first game, I had three.''
Johnson had no idea he could be such a force.
"It was just something I was working on,'' he said. "It was good that I was at Kannapolis, low-A, not a higher level. Everybody there was great. If I made a mistake, they didn't care. I started running and pretty soon I got confident with everything.''
Promoted from Kannapolis to Winston-Salem in early July and then on to Birmingham a week before the playoffs, Johnson will go to the Arizona Fall League and probably back to Double A to start 2014. He joins Marcus Semien, Leury Garcia and Carlos Sanchez in the mix to grab a middle-infield job when the White Sox no longer look to Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez.
He has low-mileage legs, and he knows how to use them.