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Cubs’ Matt Garza has another strong outing, but one mistake costs game

Matt Garza’s face says it all after he gave up two-out two-run homer Carlos Lee ninth. | Brian Kersey~AP

Matt Garza’s face says it all after he gave up a two-out, two-run homer to Carlos Lee in the ninth. | Brian Kersey~AP

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Updated: November 18, 2011 12:22AM

How else should another well-pitched game by Cubs starter Matt Garza have ended but with one mistake pitch denying him a complete-game victory Friday against the Houston Astros?

Garza’s season-high nine innings were the latest in his succession of quality starts since mid-July, and that track record will count more for the Cubs going forward than the errant two-strike fastball to Carlos Lee in the ninth that became a two-run homer, tying the game at 3 and denying Garza what could have been a four-hit complete game.

His teammates eventually pulled out a 4-3 victory in the 12th in a less flashy way. Marlon Byrd’s bases-loaded dribbler touched the third-base line in a choppy-enough way to fool third baseman Chris Johnson and allow Starlin Castro to score.

“I think I set a record for the shortest walk-off [hit] ever,’’ Byrd joked.

But the outcome of these September games becomes less the story line than the performances that shape them.

Garza, still 8-10 but with a 3.51 ERA, continues to be one of the pitching hopes for 2012. His acquisition from the Tampa Bay Rays might be one of former general manager Jim Hendry’s better legacies.

“I’m just trying to finish strong and build on what I’ve been doing,’’ said Garza, who admitted the pitch to Lee was a matter of challenging with his best against one of baseball’s better hitters. “I still felt strong at the end. I wanted the ball [in the ninth]. It’s a situation I wanted to be in, and I’ll keep wanting that ball in the ninth.’’

Manager Mike Quade wanted the victory for Garza, too.

“I felt terrible for him,’’ he said. “When I saw [catcher Geovany] Soto setting up inside, I thought ‘OK, please make this pitch.’ He just didn’t get it where he wanted it. But I hope he doesn’t lose as much sleep over it as I will. He’s pitched fine.’’

Garza threw a season-high 124 pitches, including 28 in the ninth. But adrenaline goes a long way, and Garza has it stockpiled.

“When I was with Texas and he was pitching for Tampa, you knew you had to bring your A game every time he pitched,’’ Byrd said. “He’s a bulldog. He battles. And every time he’s on the mound, you feel good.’’

Garza hasn’t reached double-figure victories, and he might not with perhaps one more start on the horizon. But he still has been one of the National League’s better pitchers, his ERA ranking among the top 24. He is one of four in that group with only eight victories, joining the Nationals’ Jordan Zimmermann, the Mets’ R.A. Dickey and the Marlins’ Anibal Sanchez.

Garza’s record might have been better had it not been for time on the disabled list in May with an elbow bone contusion — and a stretch of eight starts from July 2 to Aug. 9 when the cubs scored a total of nine runs in 502/3 innings behind him. He went 1-3 in that stretch, but with a 3.38 ERA.

In seven starts since then, he is 3-1 with a 2.66 ERA (14 runs in 471/3 innings).

“Coming off spring training and his first couple outings, and seeing him now, he’s been great,’’ said Soto, who homered in the third off starter Wandy Rodriguez. “He’s been getting his feet wet in the National League and learning, but he’s doing a terrific job. He’s one of the most competitive guys we have.’’

Garza has pitched especially well in Wrigley Field, with a 5-5 record but a 2.67 ERA (32 runs in 108 innings) in 16 home starts. In his last nine home starts, his ERA is 1.95 (14 runs in 642/3 innings.)

Despite missing time from May 18 to June 5 with his injury, Garza has logged 182 innings. He might still reach 200, but that isn’t necessarily a goal.

“It’s not a big deal,’’ he said. “I’m throwing the ball well. I’m not in a rush [to reach 200]. For me, it’s not about that. I just want to finish strong.’’

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