The Los Angeles Dodgers were old hands at this National League Championship Series business by 1981. The Dodgers had been to the NLCS in 1974, 1977 and 1978, winning pennants all three times, though never the World Series. The Montreal Expos were just the opposite—they were making their first visit to the postseason. The veteran Dodgers and the up-and-coming Expos crossed paths in a well-played 1981 NLCS.
Each team had used its aces to survive the Division Series, but each had deep rotations, so Los Angeles’ Burt Hooton and Montreal’s Bill Gullickson were both quality starters coming off good years. And for eight innings they staged pitchers’ duel.
Los Angeles got on the board in the second, with a leadoff single from Steve Garvey, an RBI double from Ron Cey, and after Cey moved to third, Bill Russell bunted him in. The 2-0 lead stood into the eighth, with neither team threatening in the intervening innings.
With two outs, and Montreal closer Jeff Reardon in the game, Cey’s single was followed by back-to-back home runs off the bats of Pedro Guerrero and Mike Scoscia. Montreal picked up a run in the ninth, but never put the outcome in doubt and the Dodgers claimed Game 1, 5-1.
The Expos now had to beat the NL Cy Young winner, 20-year-old Fernando Valenzuela, who had electrified the country. Ray Burris wasn’t quite as renowned, but the Montreal starter had a good year in 1981 and in Game 2, he was outstanding.
Montreal’s Larry Parrish and Jerry White singled with one out in the second. A double from Warren Cromartie made it 1-0 and left runners on second and third. After a walk to Chris Speier, Valenzuela struck out Burris and was poised to escape without further damage. But Tim Raines hit a two-out single to right. Cromartie tried to score a third run, but was thrown out at the plate by Guerrero.
Still, it was 2-0 and that was more than enough for Burris. Montreal added a run in the sixth when Andre Dawson and Gary Carter hit consecutive singles and an error in the outfield by Dusty Baker brought Dawson around. The Dodgers never mounted a threat until the ninth. They put two on with one out, and Guerrero ripped a line drive. But it went at the shortstop Speier, who doubled Cey off second. Ballgame, and the 3-0 win tied the series.
Friday night in Montreal produced more good pitching, this time with Expo ace Steve Rogers on the mound facing the Dodgers’ solid veteran lefty Jerry Reuss. The game was scoreless through three, and Los Angeles scraped out a run in the fourth. Baker and Garvey each singled, with Baker advancing to third, and then being picked up on a ground ball from Cey.
Reuss kept it 1-0 until there were two outs in the sixth. Montreal struck suddenly. Dawson singled and Carter walked. Parrish singled to tie the game and then White launched a three-run homer. It was 4-1 in a series that made a three-run lead seem insurmountable.
And it basically was. Los Angeles didn’t threaten until the ninth, when Garvey and Cey singled and gave Guerrero a chance as the tying run with none out. Guerrero hit a ground ball at Parrish, who touched third and threw to first to complete a double play. Rogers struck out Scioscia and Montreal was a win away from their first pennant.
Both rotations put starters on short rest, and it was Hooton-Gullickson rematch on three days’ rest for Game 4. Los Angeles threatened in the second, but Scioscia grounded into a double play to kill the rally. Then each team’s third baseman made an error to let in a run. Parrish booted one in the third and an RBI double by Baker put LA on top. Cey returned the favor with an error in the fourth, and after a walk, Cromartie singled to tie it back up.
Hooton and Gullickson stayed in control. The Dodgers threatened in the sixth with runners on the corners and none out. A grounder went at Parrish, who came home with hit and cut Baker down at the plate. The game stayed 1-1 into the eighth.
Baker worked a walk, and then Garvey delivered. A two-run blast gave Los Angeles the lead. Montreal put two runners on with one out in their own half of the eighth, and Hooton was lifted for Bob Welch. The hard-throwing Welch quelled the threat and kept the game 3-1.
The Expo bullpen fell completely apart in the ninth, with Woodie Fryman, Elias Sosa and Bill Lee combining to give up five singles two walks and allowing four runs. The 7-1 final didn’t reflect how tense the game had been, but it set up Game 5 on Sunday.
Snow poured out over Montreal on Sunday and the game was postponed. As one of the many examples of how the game was changed, the decisive game for the pennant was not shown in prime-time. The World Series was due to start in New York the next night, and presumably to allow more travel time, the teams played a day game when people were at work (or in the case of this then-11-year-old, in school).
Burris and Valenzuela rematched, now on full rest after the snow-out. Each pitcher again dominated. Both teams threatened in the first. Burris escaped a one-out triple by Russell when he got Baker and Garvey. Valenzuela allowed a double to Raines, and then off a sac bunt, an attempt to cut Raines down at third failed. Dawson hit into a double play, but Raines came in through the back door and it was 1-0.
The score held until the fifth, when Fernando helped himself. After Rick Monday and Guerrero singled, and then the pitcher hit a ground ball out that brought Monday home to tie the game. It wouldn’t be the last time Monday was heard from.
Pitching continued to dominate when Montreal manager Jim Fanning made a fatal decision. With one out in the bottom of the eight, and no one on base, he lifted Burris. Not only that, but the manager, not trusting his bullpen, went to Rogers on two days’ rest.
After the eighth predictably ended with no runs, Rogers got the first two men out and Monday came to the plate. He turned on a pitch and it ended over the right-centerfield fence. The Expos tried to rally with two outs in their own half of the ninth, with Carter and Parrish getting walks off Valenzuela. Welch again came on and got a ground ball out from White to seal the pennant.
Monday on Monday—the walk-off home run on this odd Monday afternoon became one of the great moments of NLCS history (or infamous moments depending on your point of view). It’s worth second-guessing the removal of Burris. There were no threat and if he even gets you through the top of the ninth—a reasonable assumption given Burris’ complete domination of LA in this series—Montreal could have tried to win it with the top of the order.
The Expos were seen as a rising power, with most of their talent being young or in their prime, but they never again got this close. In fact, they never again made the playoffs while in Montreal (though they did have the best record in MLB in 1994 when another strike ended the season). Not until the franchise relocated to Washington, became the Nationals and won the NL East in 2012 and 2014, did this organization make the postseason.
Los Angeles moved on to the World Series and this time, they got over the top, beating the New York Yankees in six games and winning LA its first title since 1965.
The Dodgers didn’t disappear either. They won the NL West in 1983 and got back to the League Championship Series, continued to contend and won the World Series again in 1988.