A strong second half in the 1992 season had the 1993 Montreal Expos feeling optimistic when they got to spring training. Even though they didn’t ultimately make the playoffs, the ‘93 Expos fulfilled the promise.
Major league baseball’s postseason had high barriers of entry. In 1993, there were only two divisions in each league. The NL East that Montreal occupied also included the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, along with current occupants in the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets. The expansion Florida Marlins would join the festivities in 1993. And only the division champ qualified for the playoffs, going directly to the League Championship Series.
The division was seen as being up for grabs in 1993. The Pirates had won it the previous three years, but two years of free agent losses hit their peak when Barry Bonds left for San Francisco. Pittsburgh began moving into fire sale mode before the season even began and the NL East race was open for business.
Montreal’s success was built on a pitching staff that would rank fourth in the National League in ERA in 1993. Dennis Martinez was 39-years-old, but still a horse and still effective. He cleared the 200-inning mark, won 15 games and finished with 3.85 ERA. Ken Hill posted a 3.23 ERA in 183 innings of work. And 22-year-old Kirk Reuters was a big find, getting fourteen starts, winning all eight of his decisions and ending up with a 2.73 ERA.
The bullpen was deep and manager Felipe Alou made good use of it. John Wetteland saved 43 games with a 1.37 ERA. Mel Rojas was a terrific setup man, with a 2.95 ERA. Jeff Fassero, Brian Barnes and Jeff Shaw were on a shuttle between the pen and the rotation, combining for 23 starts and 132 relief appearances, as Alou squeezed the most out of them.
The offense was triggered by speed and the most stolen bases in the NL. Marquis Grissom led the way with 53 steals. He also posted a .351 on-base percentage, drove in 95 runs and scored 104 more, all the while playing a good centerfield. Larry Walker was next to him in right and provided the power, a .469 slugging percentage and 22 home runs. Delino DeShields swiped 43 bags and had an OBP of .389. Moises Alou slugged .483.
These four players—Grissom, Walker, DeShields and Moises Alou—were the core of the offense, but the attack had significantly more depth than in ‘92. Sean Berry took over at third from aging Tim Wallach and Berry had a stat line of .348 OBP/.465 slugging percentage. Mike Lansing played 141 games at a variety of positions and delivered a .352 OBP. Lou Evans, the fourth outfielder, had an OBP of .340. The Montreal offense didn’t have enough power to be elite, but they did enough to rank seventh in the 14-team National League in runs scored.
The Expos opened the season at home against teams from the NL West and won eight of their first twelve. But the return trip across the continent was not as kind, producing a 2-5 record and they slipped 5 ½ games back in the division race. By Memorial Day the record was a respectable 27-21, but the Phillies were scorching hot and held a seven-game lead.
Early summer went poorly. Montreal lost three of four in St. Louis, to a Cardinal team that was also hoping to keep pace with Philadelphia and was managed by Joe Torre. The Expos fell as many as 12 ½ games in the hole. But they won a series with the Phils and got a five-game winnings streak going into the All-Star break. Montreal was 48-40 and at 8 ½ games out, they at least had a pulse.
A trip to Philadelphia in early August resulted in three straight losses and seemed to be the death knell for the season. But the Expos took a series from the Cardinals and then ripped off nine wins in the last ten games before Labor Day. Montreal had moved past St. Louis, but still had a 9 ½ game deficit with Philly.
But the winning streak continued. The Expos won eight of their next nine and the lead was reduced to a manageable five games. Philadelphia was coming north for a three-game weekend set that began on September 17. It was the last meeting of the year between the two teams and the last real shot for Montreal. They certainly had to win the series and probably needed to sweep.
And they put up a fight in the Friday night opener. Even with Martinez being chased and falling behind 7-3, the Expos tied the game in the seventh inning and it went extra innings. In the 12th, Grissom doubled, stole third and scored the winning run on a DeShields sac fly. There was still life.
They fell behind again on Saturday, this time 5-1 as the game went to the eighth inning. Wil Cordero, the 21-year-old shortstop ripped a three-run home run and cut the lead to 5-4. There was still no one out, but they were unable to pull even. In the ninth, Walker drew a walk, took second on an errant pickoff throw and then stole third. There was only one out and the tying run was 90 feet away. But Lansing struck out, Berry flied to right and the game ended at 5-4.
A third straight thriller awaited on Sunday, a no-doubt-about-it-must-win scenario for Montreal and again they fought from behind. They again trailed 5-4 in the ninth inning. They had the tying and winning runs in scoring position. Cordero again came through, with a two-out base hit that won it 6-5. The odds were still against the Expos, but with the deficit at four games, they could dare to dream.
What they couldn’t do was afford to lose and they promptly dropped two of three to the Atlanta Braves, in a ferocious NL West race themselves. The Phillies picked up the pace and used the opportunity to push the lead back to six games. It was all over but the shouting. Montreal finished strong and ended only three games back, but they were officially eliminated on Tuesday of the season’s final week.
More impressive was the 94 games that Montreal had won. For the second straight year, they were playoff-caliber by the standards of today. One year later, baseball would implement its realignment and expanded postseason that would have benefited these Expos. In 1994. Montreal was even better. They had the best record in baseball in early August when cruelest blow came. A players’ strike wiped out the rest of the season. The talent core was broken up when the players came back in the spring of 1995.
The way it ended left a bitter taste for baseball fans in Montreal and for fair-minded fans everywhere. But it shouldn’t obscure how consistently good the Expos were in the early part of the 1990s. The 1993 team was very much a part of that run.