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Cubs’ Matt Garza a key for 2012, has been in fold since offseason

Matt Garzhas blessed Cubs with stellar pitching just as important right attitude. | Tom Gannam~AP

Matt Garza has blessed the Cubs with stellar pitching and, just as important, the right attitude. | Tom Gannam~AP

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:21AM

PITTSBURGH — If it looked like the Cubs’ rebuilding process for next year moved at a snail’s pace in July through the trading deadline Sunday, maybe that’s because it started last winter and is certain to continue well into next winter.

Well, that and a no-trade clause or two, and the fact nobody wanted most of the other guys the Cubs would have traded.

The bigger point is that the most significant move to improve next year might be the one the Cubs made in January.

Hailed then as a deal that could provide an important piece in 2011, the trade for former 15-game winner Matt Garza from the Tampa Bay Rays always was more about a longer-term vision.

And as Garza, the Cubs’ best starting pitcher this year, takes the mound tonight in Pittsburgh — with two months left in a summer that’s all about next spring — he could be the biggest reason the Cubs have for believing they can compete out of the gate next April.

‘‘Moving forward, we should be awfully glad we have Garza,’’ general manager Jim Hendry said. ‘‘It certainly wasn’t a one-year thing, and he’s pitched as well as anybody in the National League the last month. And when you look at starting pitching that might be available in the offseason, the [thin] free-agent market, when you line up and get ready for your winter work, you’ll be glad you got him.’’

That’s especially true when it looks like the best of the rest of next year’s starting staff might already be in-house, barring a trade of similar magnitude next winter.

Ryan Dempster is back in 2012, and, assuming no sudden change in trade interest, so is Carlos Zambrano. The Cubs’ starter Tuesday night, Randy Wells, made another six-inning case for himself by beating the Pirates. Last year’s rookie sensation, Andrew Cashner, is expected to take another run at the rotation next spring, and Casey Coleman remains at the fringes of the rotation picture.

Garza, who tries tonight to pitch the Cubs to a fourth straight victory for the first time this season, has given them reason to be happy, and not just because of the quality of his pitching. It’s also how he responded to four would-be wins being blown by the bullpen, how he handled being shut out in three other starts and how he dealt with being victimized by shoddy fielding in three other starts (even if some of the fielding problems were his own).

‘‘It’s just one of those things. Luck, whatever you want to call it,’’ Garza said. ‘‘It’s happened more than once, so I don’t really think it’s luck anymore. But you just keep going and just keep enjoying being out there every five days. I’m just going to keep going, just keep going, just keep going. That’s the only way to do it.’’

This after a winless July — despite a 3.82 ERA and four quality starts.

‘‘His mind-set’s about as good as it can be,’’ said manager Mike Quade, who talked with Garza after that game. ‘‘Given his future here, that’s exactly the approach he needs to take.’’

A strong finish the final two months might make him a front-runner for an Opening Day start next season.

‘‘For as good as I think he is, I still think there’s upside, [especially] as he gets more familiar with the league,’’ Quade said. ‘‘You just can’t look at his stuff and not think that he couldn’t be the No. 1 guy.’’

*An earlier version of this story included a passage indicating that Matt Garza pitched on Saturday. He did not appear in Saturday’s game.

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