Cubs see Barney and Castro as game-changers

Cubs see Barney and Castro as game-changers
April 27, 2013, 7:45 pm
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MIAMI – Darwin Barney can’t quite palm a basketball, but he can dunk a tennis ball or finish an alley-oop, the kind of athleticism that helped him become a Gold Glove second baseman.

Growing up in Oregon, Barney loved being the point guard and naturally became a big fan of the Portland Trail Blazers. His father had played basketball at Brigham Young University-Hawaii.

Barney stopped playing hoops for his high school team when he started getting real interest from Division I baseball programs. He won a baseball state championship in high school and developed into a glue guy for the Oregon State University teams that won back-to-back College World Series titles.

The Cubs need all those intangibles, Barney running point again and making others around him better. That’s directing traffic across the infield, getting the team into defensive sets and guiding All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro.

Castro made a huge stop in Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Miami Marlins, diving to his left to rob Austin Kearns and flipping the ball to Barney from his knees to save a run and end the eighth inning. That bailed out Carlos Marmol and allowed Kevin Gregg to close it out in the ninth inning (even if he’s not the official closer) in front of 27,519 fans at Marlins Park.

“I keep working, concentrating more on my defense,” Castro said. “I don’t want to put in my mind: ‘Oh, I can’t make an error.’ Every player makes errors. (You’re) human.”

This is exactly what manager Dale Sveum is talking about when he mentions game-changing plays.

Barney needed every inch of his vertical leap during Friday’s 4-2 win in Little Havana. Scott Feldman fielded a ball hit back to the pitcher’s mound, turned and almost threw it into center field, the kind of scene Cubs fans have watched too often during a 9-14 start.

Barney, who’s listed at 5-foot-10, jumped and stretched out his left arm to catch it. He landed with his left foot on the bag and instantly threw to first base to beat Placido Polanco and turn the double play. That preserved a four-run lead in the third inning, with Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton waiting on deck.

“He's our anchor,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “He’ll get to everything. It makes my job a lot easier knowing he’ll be where he needs to be all the time. We just need someone to make that play and step up.”

Barney began the season on the disabled list with a laceration on his left knee and wasn’t activated until April 16. His absence can’t explain away all the defensive lapses, but there’s no doubt the Cubs missed his steady play.

“We’re hoping (to) get a little momentum,” Barney said. “We’ve pitched well enough to win a lot more games than we have. It’s just a matter of the offense coming through in the situations they need to and keep (on) pitching. Every day a new guy’s on the mound and there’s never a guy where you’re like: ‘Oh, we might not have a good chance to win today.’ That’s definitely uplifting as a defense.”

The Cubs entered Saturday tied for second-to-last in the majors with 18 errors that had led to 14 unearned runs. Their .979 fielding percentage ranked among the bottom four teams in the game. The mental mistakes compelled Sveum to issue his “Nobody’s exempt” declaration about possibly losing jobs and/or playing time.

“Some of these errors look physical, but they’re maybe a lack of awareness at the time, of the situation at hand,” Sveum said last weekend, “whether they’re trying to be too quick or sometimes won’t have enough aggressiveness on balls.

“Sometimes defense is a rhythm and we’re obviously not in any kind of defensive rhythm right now. Just like offense can be contagious, defense can (be that way), too, by making great plays and then things kind of snowball.”

Barney definitely has rhythm, going 141 straight games at second base without an error last season and leading all players in the National League with a 3.6 defensive win above replacement rating. That could make him a foundation piece in this rebuilding project, even though he’s already 27 years old.

Barney knows who he is, and usually comes up with a quick one-liner or two. Like when he was recently asked about the possibility of an expanded clubhouse and more player amenities at a renovated Wrigley Field.

“I’m excited if I’m here, so I hope I’m here,” Barney said.

As the Cubs go for the four-game sweep on Sunday that would be the exclamation point to this three-city road trip, Castro knows the guy he wants by his side.

“Everybody works together, that’s why the defense is pretty good right now,” Castro said. “That’s why we won the game, because everybody’s together. It’s a group (effort).”