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Even in blowout, excitement turns on Cubs’ Castro, Barney

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

HOUSTON — The Cubs didn’t do much to get the fans excited over what they saw Tuesday against Houston.

But watching with a view beyond this 11-2 loss — which headed south as quickly as Michael Bourn and Angel Sanchez started the Astros’ first with back-to-back bunt singles — offered a glimpse of coming events that might be much more worth watching.

One night after kid middle infielders Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney keyed the Cubs’ five-run attack in Monday’s win with huge games from the 1-2 spots in the order, they were back there again.

And giving another look into the hoped-for homegrown-core future of the Cubs — two big parts of a starting lineup that included five homegrown players.

Castro led off the game with an infield single and added an infield hit in the fifth, making him 8-for-14 in three starts as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter.

‘‘I’m always a little guarded because he’s such a young kid,’’ manager Mike Quade said of the 21-year-old shortstop who is off to a .367 start after a .300 rookie season. ‘‘But you can’t help but enjoy being around him, with his enthusiasm and stuff.’’

And it’s not just with the bat that Castro is impressing.

‘‘The fact that he gets that first ground ball [Monday] and Carlos [Pena] picks him up big time [with a pick] on a ball in the dirt,’’ Quade said. ‘‘And then you want to get after him a little bit, but you don’t have to say anything, and the next ground ball, snap, right back. And that’s another thing that I think has shown how he’s matured.

‘‘He’s fun and anchoring a heck of a middle right now.’’

And Barney has had a chance the last three games to pair up in a youthful, homegrown keystone with Castro — something that early returns suggest could be a longer-term marriage in the middle at some point.

If he can keep hitting — .320 even after an 0-for-4 Tuesday — Barney could make that happen sooner than later.

‘‘It’s just a brief snapshot,’’ said Quade, who admitted envisioning the same possibility watching the big tandem game by the pair Monday. ‘‘There’s a lot of baseball to play. But both of them are off to really good starts. They play with enthusiasm. Both of them are getting smarter every day. They fit real well together.’’

Jeff Baker also has started hot these first two weeks and looked good in a platoon role at second with Barney. But today as the Cubs face lefty Wandy Rodriguez, Quade is taking advantage of matchups and first baseman Pena’s sore thumb to use Baker at first and keep Barney alongside Castro in the middle.

‘‘So far they’ve come very far very fast,’’ Quade said of the kids. ‘‘That’s always exciting.’’

Not so exciting for homegrown pitcher James Russell on this night as the second-year reliever struggled to get five outs with his 55-pitch allotment in his big-league starting debut.

‘‘Of all things, two pretty damn good bunts to start things off and he just never could get on track,’’ Quade said.

Said Russell, who didn’t give up much hard contact despite the rough-looking pitching line on a day he spot started for injured fifth starter Andrew Cashner: ‘‘I must have done something to piss off the baseball gods, I guess.’’

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