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STL@CHC: Garza strikes out four over 6 2/3 innings

CHICAGO -- If this was Matt Garza's last game with the Cubs, they gave him quite the sendoff.

Luis Valbuena smacked a two-run home run and Alfonso Soriano hit a solo shot and a double Saturday night to power Garza and the Cubs to a 6-4 win over the Cardinals in front of 42,240, the largest crowd of the season at Wrigley Field.

It was nearly a historic night. Garza was vying to become the first Cubs pitcher in 61 years to go six straight starts of at least seven innings with one or no earned runs allowed since Warren Hacker did so in 1952. But Allen Craig's RBI single in the seventh was the second run off the right-hander. Garza was pulled after giving up a season-high 10 hits over 6 2/3 innings, and throwing 113 pitches.

The crowd gave Garza a standing ovation as he exited, but he was ticked, and not because he was trying to tie Hacker.

"I don't really like not finishing through the seventh," Garza said. "Against a team like these guys, you keep pounding away. These guys are gritty and just keep grinding."

What about the applause?

"It's awesome, but 6 2/3 [innings] doesn't deserve that," Garza said. "Seven, eight, nine [innings] does. I appreciate it, but I hope this isn't my last one."

Who knows? He's been able to shrug off the flurry of trade rumors, which he jokes have followed him everywhere. The Rangers had two scouts at Wrigley to watch the right-hander, while the Tigers, Orioles, Pirates and Blue Jays also had representatives present. Others were probably watching on TV.

"You get caught up in it, but I've been through it so much that I'm just oblivious to it until something happens," Garza said of the rumors. "It's stressful, but at the same time, I have a great outlook. I get to pitch every five days. I just keep going and keep looking forward to that next five days."

"He's handled it great," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said about the speculation. "Obviously, he went through this last year at the same time when his name was all around. It goes unsaid how he's handled it. He's pitched in as good a five-game stretch as he has in his whole career. He's obviously handled it extremely well."

But Garza's 2012 season was cut short because of elbow problems, and he made his last start on July 21. A strained lat sidelined him in Spring Training this year, and he didn't make his first start until May 21. If a team does deal for him, they're getting a starting pitcher who is fairly fresh.

In his last five starts, Garza is 5-0 with a 1.47 ERA and 33 strikeouts over 36 2/3 innings. All five have been quality starts and Saturday was the first time he didn't go at least seven innings. He's been matched up with catcher Dioner Navarro all five starts as well.

"I just put down suggestions, and he knows what he wants to do," Navarro said. "We have a game plan."

Did Garza shake him off at all?

"He shook me off more times today, and that's why his pitch count was way up," Navarro said, laughing.

The Cardinals, playing without Matt Holliday, took a 1-0 lead in the second on Tony Cruz's RBI single.

The Cubs then batted around in the second. Soriano doubled to lead off and Navarro followed with a single to right that Carlos Beltran overran for an error. Soriano scored on the miscue, and one out later, Dave Sappelt hit an RBI single to go ahead, 2-1. Darwin Barney reached on a single and Garza bunted for a hit that floated past a diving Lance Lynn. One out later, Sappelt scored on Starlin Castro's infield single.

There was quite the buzz in the crowd, and Sveum said they noticed.

"Once we took that lead, I think the players really felt how big a game this was for us," Sveum said.

Soriano led off the third with his 16th home run of the season and No. 180 with the Cubs to move into sole possession of 11th place on the franchise's all-time list, passing Derrek Lee. It was Soriano's ninth homer in his last 15 games.

Barney singled to open the fourth and set up Valbuena's home run, his eighth. The two blasts off Lynn were a rarity; he'd given up five in his previous 18 starts.

The Cardinals loaded the bases with one out in the eighth against Blake Parker, taking advantage of an error by right fielder Julio Borbon who couldn't catch pinch-hitter Yadier Molina's fly ball. Parker exited, and Matt Carpenter hit a sacrifice fly off James Russell. St. Louis added another run off Kevin Gregg in the ninth, but he held on for his 17th save in 19 opportunities.

The Cubs now have won six of their last eight games, and close the first half on Sunday. Sveum will spend the All-Star break in Las Vegas, visiting his daughter. Any surprises in the first half?

"I don't know about surprises," said Sveum, who has had to revamp the bullpen because of injuries and ineffectiveness. "We've just come up short [in some games] and a lot of that is not being able to hold guys down in the later innings."

The only surprise in the second half may be if Garza stays with the Cubs past the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Garza told his agent that he didn't want to talk about a contract extension, which the Cubs have discussed, so he could focus on preparing for the game. He felt the buzz from the crowd.

"It's awesome, it's a great place to play, a great place to pitch," Garza said. "The fans really embrace you when you do your job. When you don't, they embrace you, but not in a positive way. I like it here, I love it here, but it is what it is."

And it might have been his last start in a Cubs uniform.

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