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Barney learns from best to become defensive star

CHICAGO -- Two years ago, Darwin Barney was having a stellar season with Triple-A Iowa. He was the starting shortstop, and just a phone call away from the big leagues. That changed on May 7, 2010.

On that day, the Cubs bypassed Barney and promoted shortstop Starlin Castro from Double-A Tennessee to the big leagues.

"I took a lot of pride growing up being a shortstop," Barney said. "I spent my whole life trying to perfect that position. When Starlin Castro got called up from Double-A, I was in Triple-A, leading the league in fielding percentage and hitting. They called up Starlin Castro.

"For me, it was time to sit back and say, 'What do I have to do? What kind of player do I have to be?'"

Barney turned to Ryne Sandberg, who was Iowa's manager at the time. Both had come up together in the Minor Leagues, as Sandberg managed Barney at Class A Peoria in 2007, at Double-A Tennessee in '09, and at Iowa in 2010. Who better to teach Barney about second base than a Hall of Fame second baseman?

The plan was for Barney to play second one day, then shortstop the next at Iowa, but that didn't happen. He was Iowa's Opening Day second baseman, then played shortstop the rest of the year. Barney and Sandberg would meet on the field early nearly every day to drill at second base.

"We spent a lot of time talking about things and talking about routines," Barney said.

Sandberg was devoted to routine. As a player, he had the same pregame plan, taking the same number of ground balls to his left, to his right, and straight at him. It helped Sandberg win nine Gold Glove Awards.

For Barney, that extra work has paid off this season. Barney has set a single-season club record with 101 straight errorless games at second base, breaking Sandberg's mark of 90, set June 21, 1989, through the end of that season. Sandberg did extend his streak to a franchise-record 123 games the next year, ending that on May 17, 1990.

Barney hasn't said anything to Sandberg, now managing the Phillies' Triple-A team.

"I haven't shot that text message his way yet," Barney said, smiling. "What does he have -- seven or eight Gold Gloves in a row? I've got nothing on Sandberg. Playing on this field, to get nine Gold Gloves is phenomenal. I've got absolutely nothing on Ryne Sandberg. He definitely was that guy."

Cubs manager Dale Sveum has been touting Barney's defense this season.

"It's just not having any errors, it's the range he's showed and the ability to have everything in his tool box -- going to his right, going to his left, everything," Sveum said. "Right now, there's no doubt in my mind he should win a Gold Glove."

Barney has gotten help from Sveum, infield coach Pat Listach and outfield coach Dave McKay, who help position the players on the field. But the ability to run and catch popups that seem out of reach was developed at a young age by his father. Whoever is in right field has to keep an eye on Barney. He's fast.

"My dad always jokes about a drill we did in Little League, when we'd toss fly balls left and right and catch them and then go for the next one," Barney said. "Popups are fun, and coming up in the Minor Leagues, you're watching the popups at Wrigley and you get a little worried about it, because you're seeing all the debacles [because of the wind]. It's just [a] part of the game you have to be good at."

Barney, 26, currently leads all National League second basemen with a .998 fielding percentage and an .853 zone rating, having made one error -- on April 17 -- in 111 games. Brandon Phillips is second in fielding percentage, and he is the man Barney has to unseat if he's to win a Gold Glove Award this year.

"He's the best in the game," Barney said of the Reds' second baseman.

Phillips has won the award three of the past four years, and he is someone else Barney sought for help. The Cubs and Reds were playing each other in Spring Training in 2011, and at the end of the third inning, Barney approached Phillips on the field.

"I asked him, 'Hey, man, I'm learning second base, I'm trying to learn double-play turns,'" Barney said. "He stood out there and talked to me for a couple minutes between innings and talked to me about my hand positioning. From that day, I had a lot of respect for him and the guy he is, and the way he plays the game defensively.

"He's good. You can't take anything away from him, except for the fact that he's the Gold Glove guy at second base right now, not me."

Phillips, whom the Cubs will see this weekend in a three-game series starting Friday at Great American Ball Park, remembers the conversation.

"I just told him basically about what's the best way I turn double plays, and about moving your feet and positioning yourself while catching the ground balls, and just playing defense," Phillips said. "He listened, and actually it's paying off."

Phillips doesn't check the highlight clips every night to see how Barney is doing. The Reds lead the NL Central; they've got other things to focus on.

"I try to make it simple as possible for them to understand where I'm coming from," Phillips said. "Myself, I have a little flair to it, but I have to tell them the beginning stage of it for them to become successful."

Barney can only hope those who vote for the Gold Glove Award don't grade him on style points.

By the way, Barney doesn't harbor any ill feelings toward Castro for taking the shortstop job.

"It's fun to play next to a guy like Starlin," Barney said. "That was one of those moments for me when they called him up that I started thinking, 'What do I have to do?'"

Barney has figured that out.

Chicago Cubs, Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, Brandon Phillips