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When the final weeks of September roll around, the Cubs usually are gasping for air and trying to ruin someone else's season.
But a funny thing has happened in this unpredictable year of magic dust and corked bats, and the Cubs suddenly are peaking in the month that matters most.
Matt Clement shrugged off a groin injury and shut down the New York Mets in a 4-1 victory Monday night at Wrigley Field, giving the Cubs an 11-4 record in September.
"This is the time to peak," manager Dusty Baker said. "This is why you sort of spot guys, program guys so they can be strong down the stretch. This is a team and everybody has contributed, everybody has an opportunity to contribute, so therefore everybody stays relatively strong."
The Cubs used a quick start to take the life out of a struggling young Mets club that has lost 10 of 11 games, scoring three runs in the first inning.
With Houston idle before beginning a three-game series against Colorado at Coors Field, the Cubs moved within 11/2 games of the Astros with 12 games left. Mark Prior faces rookie right-hander Jae Weong Seo on Tuesday at Wrigley Field in the final home night game of the regular season.
Coming off a start in which he was forced to leave with a strained right groin, Clement allowed one unearned run on three hits over seven innings. He matched his career high in victories with his 13th of the season.
"I can do whatever I need to do," Clement said. "I wouldn't go out there if I couldn't. It might not be pretty, and hopefully the next start it will be closer to normal."
Catcher Paul Bako said Clement's stuff was as good as it had been all season. Over his last 20 starts, Clement is 11-5 with a 3.54 ERA.
"Really impressive," Bako said. "You could see him limping."
Said Baker: "What surprised me is how he could cover first base. He had all the command of all his pitches, and we got him that early lead, which helps any pitcher."
Clement had been saddled with the fifth-worst run support of any National League starter entering the game, but the Cubs gave him an instant boost of offense in the first. Kenny Lofton and Mark Grudzielanek started it with back-to-back singles off rookie Jeremy Griffiths (1-3), and Moises Alou's one-out RBI single made it 1-0. Randall Simon hammered a pitch off the right-field wall to bring home two more runs and give Clement a 3-0 lead.
Bako's run-scoring triple in the fourth made it 4-0, and Clement was basically home free. Bako, who added a double in the sixth, is batting .293 in 20 games since Aug. 2, when he was hitting only .198.
Clement was nicked for a run in the fifth on two infield hits, a throwing error by third baseman Aramis Ramirez and a wild pitch that brought home Mets shortstop Jorge Velandia. But Clement cruised through the sixth and seventh innings before being lifted after 102 pitches. Mike Remlinger pitched the eighth and Joe Borowski closed it out, with Borowski posting his 29th save.
In the last two games, Carlos Zambrano and Clement have combined to allow one earned run on seven hits over 16 innings.
"We want to keep doing what we've been doing all year," Clement said. "'Z' pitched an unbelievable game. It was a tough loss [Sunday], and we were able to come back and persevere, like we've been able to do all year."