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Cubs’ Listach: Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro key to improving defense

The Cubs’ DarwBarney leads major-league second basemen runs saved. | Norm Hall~Getty Images

The Cubs’ Darwin Barney leads major-league second basemen in runs saved. | Norm Hall~Getty Images

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:27AM

It was all Pat Listach could do to keep from clenching his jaw as he talked about the Cubs’ fielding woes.

‘‘It’s funny you asked me about that because I was just looking at some numbers, between errors and different things,’’ said Listach, the Cubs’ bench coach and infield coach, who has worked exhaustively — along with coach Ivan DeJesus — to drill the youth out of his work-in-progress middle infielders.

‘‘We’ve got to be strong up the middle. [Darwin] Barney’s still learning to play second base [after
moving from shortstop]. I’m on him every day. He thinks I’m on him
unrightfully, but I’m on him because I want him to be the best second baseman out there. [Starlin] Castro the same. .  .  . They know it’s an important part of our success here. We’ve got to play defense better than what we’ve been playing.’’

Despite some general fielding
improvement in the second half of the season, some sloppiness in
recent games has underscored something that has been a problem for the Cubs for the last several seasons.

Through Friday — after committing six errors that led to six
unearned runs in consecutive losses to the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers — the Cubs had the worst fielding percentage (.977) in baseball and had committed a
major-league-leading 110 errors. They didn’t make an error in a 6-4 loss Saturday to the Brewers.

Entering play Saturday, the Cubs led the National League in errors at four positions: left field (nine), second base (15), catcher (19) and pitcher (18). And Castro’s 22 errors at shortstop were one short of the league-high for the position.

While some of their flaws might be corrected by a personnel change or two, most of the improvement almost certainly will have to come through coaching and experience.

And unless the Cubs suddenly add two front-line strikeout pitchers to their rotation, defense might become the most important factor in turning around the back-to-back fifth-place finishes they are working on.

‘‘You don’t win championships without pitching and defense; there’s no doubt about that,’’ said Barney, who committed his 11th and 12th
errors in the same inning Friday. ‘‘And that’s one of those things where we’re going to get better. There’s a lot of room for improvement, that’s for sure.’’

If it sounds as though Castro and Barney — two of the most promising pieces of this mucked-up Cubs puzzle moving forward — have been targeted disproportionately by the field staff, it’s because they have been.

That’s how important they are to what the Cubs are trying to build and how high a ceiling the organization thinks they have as a middle-infield unit. It’s part of why manager Mike Quade singled them out after a dropped pop-up in the first inning of a 9-1 loss last month.

‘‘Hell, I got irritated with the two kids in the middle five weeks ago, and the city of Chicago wanted to kill me, I guess,’’ Quade said recently. ‘‘But the only thing that mattered to me was making sure they understood the importance of their position in this organization and on the field and everything else — and that I get the response I wanted from them. And I think I did. I think they understand.’’

The problems aren’t for lack of work, Listach said. But some of the mistakes and errors, particularly the extraordinary number of errors by the catchers, are functions of the growing pains in the middle.

‘‘That’s one of my pet peeves,’’ said Listach, a former Rookie of the Year shortstop. ‘‘There’s no way
Geovany [Soto] should have 11
errors. .  .  . It’s a lot of low throws that went down there and got through to the outfield. I’ve been on both of those guys in the middle pretty hard about keeping that ball in the infield so that guy can’t go to third.

‘‘They’ve got to protect the catcher. The infielder’s job, in my opinion, is to make sure the catcher doesn’t have any errors, and we’ve got [19]. If you have to sacrifice not making the tag to keep the ball in the infield, then we’ve got to do it. .  .  .

‘‘But those two guys are going to get better because they work hard. They have to get better. And they will.’’

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