The Montreal Expos were knocking on the door in the NL East in 1979 and 1980. They lost close division races to the eventual World Series champion both years. The 1981 Montreal Expos broke the door down—in a strike-shortened season, it was an odd route, but these Expos finally reached the National League Championship Series.
Montreal was regarded as one of the most talented young teams in baseball. Gary Carter, a future Hall of Famer, was at catcher. Andre Dawson, an immensely talented centerfielder finished with a stat line of .365 on-base percentage/.553 slugging percentage.
The Expos gave an everyday job to a 21-year-old outfielder named Tim Raines and he responded with a .391 OBP and stealing 71 bases in a season that had barely more than 100 games. First baseman Warren Cromartie put up an OBP of .370.
Montreal’s pitching was no less effective. Steve Rogers won 12 games at the top of the rotation with a 3.42 ERA. The 2 thru 4 starters actually all had better ERAs, as Bill Gullickson, Scott Sanderson and Ray Burris all pitched well.
The bullpen had a rising star at closer in Jeff Reardon, a lights-out vet in Woodie Fryman (1.88 ERA) and a versatile lefty in Bill Lee, who mixed in spot starts and long relief and finished with a 2.94 ERA.
In short, the Expos had no obvious weakness and they were managed by Dick Williams, whose resume included a pennant with the 1967 Boston Red Sox and two straight World Series titles with the Oakland A’s in 1972-73, before he arrived in Montreal to put the franchise on the map.
Montreal came out of the gate quickly, winning 11 of the first 13, including a three-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies, the team that broke Expo hearts at the end of 1980. But May turned sluggish. Montreal lost five of seven games to the Los Angeles Dodgers, were mediocre elsewhere and drifted four games off the pace in the NL East.
After closing back to within a half-game of the lead the Expos lost five straight to the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds to start June. It meant that when the players went on strike on June 12, Montreal trailed by four games.
When play resumed in mid-August, MLB decided the way to rekindle fan interest was to institute a split-season format. The principle is that the team that leads at the end of the first half—in this case the Phillies—clinches a spot in the postseason and plays the winner of the second half. It would be the inaugural institution of what is now a standard postseason round—the Division Series.
There was one caveat to the new format—in a pure split-season, the team that wins the first half has a chance to also win the second half and simply eliminate the need for the Division Series. MLB altered that, presumably to guarantee their TV partners a full slate of four first-round series. In the event the Phils also won the second half, the runner-up in the latter half would advance.
What it all boiled down was that Montreal had the slate wiped clean and were back to even, and the defending World Series champions were eliminated as an obstacle to postseason play. The Expos simply had to take advantage of this opportunity.
But it was St. Louis, who got out to the early lead. Montreal started 14-12 and trailed the Cardinals by a game and a half on September 7. The Expo front office made a bold decision and fired Williams. They replaced a proven winner with the unproven Jim Fanning. Losing three of the first five under Fanning and slipping 2 ½ back didn’t inspire confidence, but then things turned around.
Montreal won eight of ten, while St. Louis lost seven of ten. The Expos led by a game and a half when the teams met head-to-head. The Expos lost two straight, but they played better coming out of the big series than did the Cardinals. Montreal was up a half-game entering the final weekend.
The Expos were facing the Mets and Rogers took the ball on Friday and delivered a complete-game two-hitter. The Cardinals fell behind the Pirates 7-0 and made a furious rally to tie the game before Pittsburgh won it in the ninth. Montreal’s magic number was one with two games to play.
On Saturday, the Expos fell behind the Mets 3-0 early. Lee came on and worked two critical innings of relief, while the offense mounted a rally. Montreal won 5-4 and finally clinched.
There was some injustice in the final standings—Montreal finished 30-23 and St. Louis was at 29-23, so the Expos benefited from a schedule that gave them one additional game. Everything had come together to get Montreal into October. Now they had to make the most of it.
Make the most of it is what they did. The Expos opened the Division Series at home and Rogers beat Philadelphia ace Steve Carlton. The series went to a decisive fifth game and Rogers not only beat Carlton again, but the Montreal pitcher hit a critical two-run single. The Expos won the game, the series and advanced to the NLCS.
Montreal met up with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1981 NLCS and the dream died a cruel death. The Expos got a 2-1 series lead in a round that was then best-of-five. They had two chances to clinch at home, and were tied in the eighth inning both times. Los Angeles broke open Game 4, and then got a two-out ninth inning home run from Rick Monday to win Game 5.
The decisive game was played on a Monday afternoon (due to snow on Sunday) and the phrase Blue Monday, for the day of the week, heroic player and the mood it engendered, made its way into the sports lexicon of Quebec.
What’s bluer though, is that the Montreal Expos of the early 1980s became a team that never fulfilled its potential. They were a contender in 1982 and 1983, but never got back to the League Championship Series, and never even had the near-miss heartbreaks of 1979 or 1980. They were just an above-average team not playing to their talent level.
Montreal would never again play in the postseason. The franchise didn’t make it back until they moved to Washington, re-named themselves the Nationals and won the NL East in 2012.