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Cubs have made a big jump with Darwin Barney back

Chicago Cubs v Miami Marlins

Chicago Cubs v Miami Marlins

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Updated: May 30, 2013 2:53PM

MIAMI — Watching Darwin Barney make that gravity-defying play Friday night to turn Scott Feldman’s air-mailed throw into a run-saving double play prompted the obvious questions by Saturday.

And, perhaps, the obvious answers: Yes, he played basketball — still does regularly in the offseason. And, yes, he can dunk — sort of.

“I just can’t grab the ball. I can’t hold it [in a dunk grip],” the Cubs’ second baseman said. “So I toss it up, and I jump and get it that way.”

It’s doubtful how much the Cubs can expect to get out of Barney’s impressive hops on a regular basis. But there’s little doubt what they get out of his basketball background every day he’s on the field.

The son of a college point guard who coached his kid with a strict hand, Barney was a tenacious point guard during the wet winters near Portland, Ore., playing until choosing to concentrate solely on baseball in high school.

He carried those backcourt skills with him into baseball, and they have never been more apparent than the last week and a half, when the unhinged Cubs got their infield linchpin back from the disabled list two games before starting this 10-game road trip.

“Big time,” said shortstop Starlin Castro, who’s more comfortable and plugged in now that he has his trusted keystone pal back. “You see the last few days how I’ve played defense.”

He had the play of the game in Saturday’s 3-2 victory, diving toward center to snare a two-out shot from Austin Kearns in the eighth, then flipping from his stomach to Barney for the force-out that saved a run.

Granted, that play was more reaction and skill than instruction from Barney.

But, Castro said, “When I’ve got that guy with me, he helps me a lot. I’m concentrating more because we’re talking all the time — how the game’s going, reminding me, ‘Hey, one out.’ I feel really good with that guy.”

While some in the media consider Barney potential trade material in the Cubs’ annual July clearance sale, the fact is the Cubs consider him part of the homegrown core they envision having put together in the next two or three years.

“Barney’s a great influence on both Castro and [first baseman Anthony] Rizzo,” assistant general manager Randy Bush said. “He helps both of them with learning how to slow the game down defensively. He plays like a veteran in spite of his relative youth.”

The reigning Gold Glove second baseman has been especially impressive the last few days, including beating the Cincinnati Reds with a 10th-inning home run Tuesday and making that game-changing acrobatic play on Feldman’s throw.

Maybe it’s no accident the Cubs have won four of their last five now that Barney’s back in the lineup every day — no accident that they’ve committed one error in the last six games after making 17 in their first 17.

“He’s huge,” veteran Alfonso ­Soriano said.

Whether it’s the fact he played shortstop his whole life until going to second as he neared the majors, or all that experience as a point guard, Barney, 27, finds it second nature to know the game conditions, think ahead and communicate with guys around him in the field.

“It’s not all me,” he said. “A lot of times we consult with each other on situations and make a decision. We’re just trying to play the game the right way situationally.”

With maybe just a little more attention on the sometimes focus-challenged young shortstop.

“I just see it as a good fit,” Barney said. “What were we doing when we were 22? I wasn’t nearly the player I am mentally when I was that age. Obviously, your job as a teammate is always to try to bring the best out of your teammates. We do that with each other. He pushes me because I’m pushing him.

“Just understanding who he is and how good he is, and will be, helps the kind of work we’re going to put in. We’re both striving to be the best up the middle.”

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