The 1992 Montreal Expos opened the season as a team in transition, but going in the wrong direction. They were still in transition at season’s end, but the direction had been pointed back upwards and set the stage for the last good years the city would have in major league baseball.
Montreal had enjoyed some excellent teams from 1979-82 and some pretty good ones from 1987-90, but 1991 was a trying campaign. Buck Rodgers, the manager of the late 1980s success, was fired after a 20-29 start. He was replaced by Tom Runnells, who fared no better in a 71-win disaster. Runnells was still in charge as 1992 opened.
The Expos reached back into their past when they brought 38-year-old catcher Gary Carter home. A core part of their best teams and a future Hall of Famer, Carter was a nice story in Montreal, but had nothing left in the tank from a productivity standpoint. Tim Wallach, the 34-year-old third baseman, was another player whose best years were in the rearview mirror.
Montreal would be led offensively by some up-and-comers. Larry Walker was the best hitter of the group, finishing with a .353 on-base percentage and .506 slugging percentage. Moises Alou, the young leftfielder, slugged .455. Speedy second baseman Delino DeShields set the table with a .359 OBP and stole 46 passes. And no one ran like Marquis Grissom, the centerfielder who swiped 78 bases and hit 39 doubles. They were enough to make the Expo offense the fifth-best in the 12-team National League.
Another aging veteran was atop the pitching rotation, but in this case, 38-year-old Dennis Martinez, was still hitting on all cylinders. He worked 226 innings, finished with a 2.47 ERA and won 16 games. Ken Hill also won 16 games, worked over 200 innings and posted an ERA in the 2s.
Martinez and Hill were the foundation of a pitching staff that ranked second in the NL in ERA. Chris Nabholz and Mark Gardner were steady starters who could be counted on to take their turn and be respectable. Brian Barnes chipped in 17 starts and a 2.97 ERA. The bullpen had an outstanding setup man in Mel Rojas, who worked 100 innings with a 1.43 ERA. And closer John Wetteland was a bright young star at age 25, saving 37 games.
The early part of the season was tumultuous. Even off-the-field events worked against stability. An early May road series against the Dodgers had to be canceled because of civil unrest in Los Angeles tied to the verdict in the Rodney King case. On the field, the Expos lost 11 of their first 19, all against divisional rivals. Just prior to Memorial Day weekend, another managerial change was made. Runnells was fired and Felipe Alou was brought in.
Alou’s hiring would prove to be a boon, but it wasn’t immediately apparent. Montreal still lost 13 of their first 24 games under the new manager and were 8 ½ games off the pace in mid-June. It was a trip to Pittsburgh that got things turned around.
In the world of 1992, the Pirates were an NL East rival. As were the Cubs and Cardinals, as each league only had an East and West division, with the winners going directly to the League Championship Series. And in the world of 1992, the Pirates were also the standard-bearer in the NL East. They had won it the last two years and were in first place again this season.
The Expos took three of four from the Pirates and got rolling. They got through a grueling three days in Los Angeles where they played doubleheaders each day to make up the missed games. By the All-Star break, Montreal had nudged themselves back to .500 and were only five games back of Pittsburgh in the NL East .
After the break, the Expos really found their groove, winning nine of their first thirteen and pulled into a first-place tie by the end of July. They rolled through August and the early days of September with a 21-12 record and by Labor Day, the record was 75-61. The problem was that Pittsburgh had been even hotter. Both teams had separated themselves from the divisional pack, but Montreal was four games out.
The margin was still at four games in mid-September when the Expos and Pirates played the first of a pair of two-game series against each other. On a Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, Grissom rapped three hits and scored three runs in a 6-3 win. On Thursday, Martinez was brilliant and handed a 2-1 lead off to Rojas in the eighth inning. But an error by shortstop Spike Owen allowed the tying run in and the Expos ultimately lost in thirteen innings. An opportunity had been missed.
There was still an opportunity to play Pittsburgh up in Montreal, but the Expos stumbled badly in between series. They lost four of five, while the Pirates rolled. The division deficit was seven games with just a week and a half left. It was all but over, and when Montreal could only manage another split, their fate was sealed.
The Expos still finished 87-75, the fourth-best record in the National League and eighth-best in MLB overall. By the standards of today, there were a clear playoff team. By the more rigorous standards that existed prior to the 1994 realignment and postseason expansion, it left Montreal home.
But the franchise was back on its feet, with young players emerging and a manager they could count on. The Expos had another strong year in 1993. The 1994 season stood to be even better—they had the best record in baseball before a strike wiped out the rest of the campaign and the playoffs. Had that not happened, we might be talking today about how the 1992 Montreal Expos laid the groundwork for an eventual World Series champ.