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A shocking end to Darwin Barney's pursuit of MLB record, but his golden defensive season for Cubs draws praise

by: STEPHEN GREEN - Darwin Barney of the Chicago Cubs has had a record-breaking season at second base.PHOENIX — The record was gift-wrapped. In the bank.

All Darwin Barney had to do was get through the eighth inning without committing an error and a place in history was his.

The former Southridge High and Oregon State standout was going to increase his consecutive game streak to 142, breaking the major-league mark for a second baseman in a season set by Detroit’s Placido Polanco in 2007.

Three outs from glory.

Then, with the Chicago Cubs trailing 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth to Arizona Friday night at Chase Field, the unthinkable happened.

With no outs and the Diamondbacks’ Aaron Hill on second base, Justin Upton chopped a ball up the middle.

Barney charged hard and the fleet Upton motored toward first base. There was no time to waste. Barney’s low, off-balance throw got past first baseman Anthony Rizzo, allowing Hill to score.

Streak over. Polanco’s all-time record — 141 games — tied, but not broken.

And when the visitors’ locker room finally opened following the game, the shocking turn of events was the topic of conversation, not the Cubs’ 8-3 loss.

“It feels like you’re going home after losing a playoff game,” a disconsolate Dale Sveum, Chicago’s first-year manager, told the assembled media. “Wow. Can’t believe it. That locker room is pretty beat up right now.

“Some things you can’t understand in this world — in life, period. That one is unbelievable, to happen in the ninth inning on a play like that.”

It was actually the eighth inning, but with the hapless Cubs trailing and not likely to rally, the Diamondbacks were in their final at-bats.

You could hear a pin drop in the Cubs’ locker room afterward, the solemn mood probably more the result of Barney’s misfortune than the loss. The Cubs, 59-98, have had plenty of those this season. Barney has made only two errors, the other one on April 17, and he was on the precipice of a record his teammates wanted him to have.

Nobody felt worse than Rizzo, a promising rookie who failed to scoop up the low throw. Upton’s ball was ruled a base hit. Had Rizzo caught the ball, or even blocked it, Hill wouldn’t have rounded third and scored, and Barney’s throw wouldn’t have been an error.

“What he has done is incredible,” said Rizzo, standing alongside Barney while answering reporters’ questions. “That play up the middle is a play ... he has made all year. That’s why everyone was so upset. I feel a lot of emotion right now.

“It’s a huge accomplishment what Darwin has done. Everyone knows Wrigley Field is one of the worst surfaces in the league. The plays he has made are incredible. For a pick like that ... it hit off my glove. I think I should have had it.”

Barney, handling the situation with grace, was quick to absolve his teammate.

“I felt more bad for 'Rizz' than anything,” he said. “I knew how bad he felt. That’s not his fault at all. It’s one of those things where the ball popped up on him off of the Arizona dirt. He has to try to make that pick, not just try and block it. It’s one of those points where he was doing his job to be aggressive and I was, too.

“Hopefully we'll be doing this for a long time together. The guy’s unbelievable. He’s going to be a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman, for sure. He shouldn’t feel bad.”

Maybe the person who felt the worst was Sveum, who spent 14 years in the major leagues as infielder and understands better than anyone the scope of Barney’s accomplishment.

“I’ve been in the game 30 years, and I’ve never seen anybody play second base like he has this year,” Sveum told me before the game. “I was fortunate to play in Milwaukee with Jim Gantner, who I considered the best I’d ever seen at that position. Barney’s even better than that.

“Watching him every single day, he puts everything into the package — going down for pop-ups down the right-field line, making double-plays, showing his range. There are so many different things in his toolbox. It’s not just a guy catching routine groundballs. He has been spectacular all season.”

After the game, Sveum shook his head as he mentally examined the fatal play.

“It wasn’t even an error,” he said. “It was an error because (Hill) advanced on a base hit that got away from the first baseman. It’s almost funny how it happened. It’s too bad.”

Barney had no quibbles with the scorekeeper’s decision on the play.

“I knew immediately it was an error,” he said. “It’s an easy scoring decision when (Hill) scores.”

Barney was asked if he considered holding the ball after fielding it, because it was such a difficult chance.

“I have to make that play,” he said. “The score was 5-3 at the time. We’re in that game. My job is to make plays regardless of taking risks.

“I’ve done that through this whole little run. You can’t hold that ball. You have to make whatever play you can.”

It was no little run. It covered 141 games, 1,155 innings and hundreds of plays. Along the way he broke the National League record of 123 games held by the Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg — ironically, once Barney’s manager at Triple-A Iowa.

“It was one heck of a run,” Sveum said. “He is still one of two in the history of baseball to do something like that. He ought to hang his hat on that and be proud. There have been a lot of great players to play second base.

“Even down the stretch here, he has done a lot of things other people might be afraid to do. He has made some plays, turned tough double-plays where he’s had to throw the ball. It’s been one of the most impressive things I’ve seen.

“It’s unbelievable how weird life is. You’re three outs away from being the only person to ever do something. For it to come down like that — it seemed like I was a lot more upset about it than he was.”

It really did. Barney patiently and pleasantly answered every question afterward, crediting teammates such as Rizzo and Starlin Castro with making plays to help extend the streak as far as it went.

For seven innings, it was an uneventful day defensively for Barney, who had snared two routine pop-ups and been involved in a successful rundown play in the seventh. Not a single groundball until Upton came to the plate in the eighth.

“It had to end at some point,” Barney said. “It’s funny — 141 games (without an error), and that happens on that game.

“It’s been a big year for me defensively. That error doesn’t change that.”

There was sympathy for Barney in the home clubhouse, that the streak had to end that way.

“I felt for the kid,” Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said. “I go, ‘Oh no, there’s the error.’ One game to go.

“He’s a good kid. He plays the game right, from what I’ve seen. He shares the record, right? That’s the way it’s going to have to be.”

Sveum indicated a fondness for Barney that is a reflection of the second baseman’s work ethic and character.

“I’ve watched him every day work his butt off, as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen work on his defense, from the first day of spring training,” Sveum said. “He is one of your players who has gone out there every day for you in tough times. And we haven’t had a great season. He has gone out there every single day and never varied from his routine.”

Barney’s next order of business will be to improve his performance at the plate. With five games left in the season, he is hitting .259 — even with a 13-game hitting streak in September — after batting .276 as a rookie last season

“I’ve been making a lot of adjustments this year,” he said. “We’re trying to find something I can take into the offseason and stick with next year. I think we have. We’ve found that approach and what I want to do with my mechanics.

“Ever since that streak I’ve been hitting the ball hard but some right at guys. I’ll stick with it, and good things will happen.”

Barney is hitting .311 at Wrigley Field but only .210 on the road this season.

“I’ve always liked hitting at Wrigley,” he said. “It’s a place I feel comfortable. If I’d just raise my average on the road a little, I’d be sitting a lot better.

“It’s not a bad thing to hit well at home, but I’m going to be better on the road next year, there’s no doubt about that.”

In the Arizona clubhouse, former OSU teammate Tyler Graham said nothing Barney achieves surprises him.

“A lot of guys have the talent to get to the big leagues, but it’s the guys who have the mental ability that separate from the rest,” said Graham, called up by the Diamondbacks from Triple-A Reno on Sept. 1. “The guys who can calm down and still compete at a high level in front of a lot of people are special. Darwin is one of those guys. He is going to continue to have success as long as he stays healthy.”

There has been much conversation about whether Barney will win the Gold Glove this season. The major competition is Cincinnati’s Brandon Phillips, who won the award as the game’s best defensive second baseman in the National League a year ago.

“Sometimes the nod goes to the incumbent, sometimes to guys with offensive numbers,” Sveum said. “A lot of people outside the division don’t see the guy play all the time. It’s not as cut-and-dried as you think.”

Barney would get the votes of his teammates.

“He deserves a Gold Glove,” said Castro, Chicago’s young shortstop. “He’s one of the guys I want to be like as a defensive player.”

“If he doesn’t win a Gold Glove,” Rizzo said, “it would be a shame.”

Corvallis native Harold Reynolds, a former Gold Glove and All-Star second baseman with Seattle, offers his endorsement.

“When you set a record for errorless games, that speaks for itself,” said Reynolds, who now works as a broadcaster for the Baseball Network. “He plays a lot of day games, and (Wrigley Field) is chopped up more in the day than at night.

“Phillips is tough to dethrone. Every day, he makes great plays. But when you have the kind of season Darwin has had, it’s hard not to give him a Gold Glove. He has earned it.”

Barney agrees.

“I do think I deserve the Gold Glove,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about it that way, though. I’ll let other people do the talking.

“Unfortunately, I’m not very flashy. My job is to get outs and help the pitching staff. It’s not to make those routine plays look tough. That’s what I’m going to do, and if that wins me a Gold Glove, so be it.”

I hope he gets it. I think he will. Darwin Barney has made a big splash with his glove this season. Sharing a record instead of holding it outright doesn’t change that at all.

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