Clement cements himself as Mr. Reliable

Tribune staff reporter

Matt Clement is learning how to finish what he starts.

The Cubs' most reliable pitcher of late almost did it again in Sunday's 4-2 victory over Houston.

Coming off the first complete game of his career, Clement took the mound against Houston at Wrigley Field and carried a 4-1 lead into the eighth inning.

Clement retired two men in the eighth, but he had hit a batter and allowed a two-out looping single by Jose Vizcaino when Cubs manager Don Baylor sauntered out to the mound. The 37,643 skeptical fans registered their dissenting opinion with a chorus of boos.

"You're always disappointed to come out of the game, but I kind of figured that the bullpen was up early and I had a lot of pitches," said Clement, who threw 113. "I trust Don and his decisions. Any pitcher wants to fight and stay in the game, but there is a time."

Reliever Antonio Alfonseca then yielded an RBI single to Lance Berkman to pull the Astros within 4-2. But Jeff Bagwell was retired on a popout to second to end the inning.

Alfonseca walked Daryle Ward to open the ninth before hitting Richard Hidalgo with a pitch. But he induced a double-play grounder from Geoff Blum and a groundout to short by Brad Ausmus to end the game in dramatic fashion as the Cubs salvaged the final game of the three-game series.

"The double play was big for us, I know that," said Baylor.

The Cubs turned a season-high three double plays.

In his last three games, Clement (4-3) has posted a 1.52 earned-run average and struck out 21 batters.

"He has gotten better and better, if that's possible," said Baylor. "Last time out he had a complete-game shutout. Today he had his good stuff. He left his slider up to Vizcaino, so I had to go get him after that. I wasn't going to let somebody hit a home run or tie the ballgame."

Last Tuesday Clement carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning before settling for a two-hitter in a 3-0 win at Pittsburgh. Clement tossed that first career complete game in his 108th start.

"I always want to stay in, but Antonio was fresh and he hasn't thrown in a while," said Clement, who walked two and struck out six.

"Earlier in the season I was having trouble getting through the fifth and sixth innings stamina-wise. But I have finally gotten into a pretty good routine. I guess getting traded over here [from Florida], you're not used to day games and being able to get on a good workout schedule. Over the last five starts I have been able to get into a good schedule of throwing and running and doing all of the stuff I like to do. I think that is what has helped me get later into the games."

The Cubs took a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Todd Hundley grounded into a bases-loaded double play to score Fred McGriff.

When McGriff beat out a potential double-play grounder in the third inning, Mark Bellhorn scored from third to make it 2-0. Moises Alou led off the fourth inning against Houston starter Shane Reynolds (3-5) with his third home run of the season. Bellhorn blasted a solo shot in the fifth for a 4-1 lead.

'The Cubs embark on a nine-game trip to Milwaukee, Seattle and Houston, beginning Monday night at Miller Park.

"It is good to leave home with a win," said Baylor. "Four runs today with the wind blowing in was probably all there were going to be. We cashed in on all the runs we had a chance to get."

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