After a franchise high point—a run of four contending seasons that included an NLCS trip in 1981—ended in 1982, the Expos drifted off the radar. Over a four-year rebuilding process, they parted ways with great players. When Andre Dawson continued the exodus by leaving via free agency prior to 1987—and then promptly won the MVP award with the Chicago Cubs—it could have been a reason for Montreal to further collapse. Instead, the 1987 Montreal Expos dug in and competed to the very last week of the season.
One great player who hadn’t left was future Hall of Fame left fielder Tim Raines. Raines posted a stat line of a .429 on-base percentage/.526 slugging percentage. He stole 50 bases and his 123 runs scored led the National League. Tim Wallach was the man driving in Raines—Wallach finished with 123 RBIs. He also hit 26 homers and finished fourth in the MVP voting.
New contributors had the chance to emerge and one of them was first baseman Andres Galaragga, whose .361/.459 stat line was keyed by 40 doubles. Mitch Webster was productive in the right field spot, driving in 101 runs.
Casey Candaele was as valuable a utility man as there was in the major leagues. Playing everywhere, Candaele got nearly 500 plate appearances and had a solid .330 on-base percentage. Vance Law played second base and finished with a .347 OBP.
The Expos lacked power and they weren’t the most patient lineup around. But the ability to get hits and drive balls in the gap ensured the offense was respectable. Montreal ended up sixth in the 12-team National League for runs scored.
Starting pitching was a significant problem. Neal Heaton was the only pitcher to make more than thirty starts and his ERA ended up at 4.52. Dennis Martinez’ 11-4 record and 3.30 ERA was the best in the rotation, but he was only available for 22 starts. This type of mediocrity would normally sink a team. But the Expos bullpen delivered and a crucial late-season return saved the rotation.
Tim Burke and Andy McGaffigan shared the closing duties and each pitched extremely well. Burke got 18 saves and posted a dazzling 1.19 ERA. McGaffigan’s 12 saves came with a 2.39 ERA. And in the rotation, Pascual Perez returned in late August after missing all of 1986. Perez got ten starts down the stretch and merely went 7-0 with a 2.30 ERA. It was enough for the Expos’ staff ERA to also come in a respectable sixth in the National League.
There were no expectations when the season started. The NL East had been dominated by the New York Mets in 1986 and the defending World Series champs were expected to do the same this year. So when Montreal lost their first five games, no one so much as raised an eyebrow. Even when they chipped back to .500 by Memorial Day, it wasn’t drawing attention.
What was drawing attention is that the Mets were playing poorly. The Expos might have been in fourth place, but they were ahead of New York. Montreal trailed the first-place St. Louis Cardinals by six games going into the summer months.
A reminder to younger readers that prior to the alignment of 1994, each league had just two divisions, an East and a West. So St. Louis, along with Chicago and Pittsburgh, were in the NL East with Montreal, New York and Philadelphia. The Miami Marlins were still seven years from existing.
Furthermore, only the division winner could advance to the postseason, going directly into League Championship Series play. The stringent postseason requirements had cost Montreal in both 1979 and 1980when they lost crushing pennant races. Could 1987 be unexpectedly different?
Montreal picked up the pace in June with a good road trip west to begin the month. They held serve in splitting four games with the Mets and six more with the Cardinals. By the All-Star break, the Expos had nudged up to second place. The Mets were right on their heels in third. And the Cardinals were soaring, with a nine-game lead.
The late summer saw St. Louis start to slump while New York heated up. Montreal was an afterthought nationally, but they quietly kept moving forward. Coming out of the break, the Expos swept lowly Atlanta, took three of four from a decent Cincinnati Reds team and took two of three from Dawson’s Cubbies in Wrigley. Montreal continued to hold serve with their two key rivals, splitting six more with New York and St. Louis.
When Labor Day arrived, the Expos were now in third place, but the slump by the Cardinals had drastically tightened the race. Montreal was within five games of the lead. This would be a three-team fight to the finish. And they were hosting St. Louis for a big series.
Galarragga unloaded in the Labor Day opener, with three hits and three RBIs, keying a 9-2 win behind Perez. Tuesday night’s game started with Raines and Webster both singling. A wild pitch scored one run and a productive groundball from Wallach picked up another. It was enough for Bryn Smith to work six solid innings and McGaffigan to clean up the final three. The Expos won 4-1.
A series win already secured, Montreal went for the sweep on Wednesday and got it. Galaragga delivered two more hits, Law homered and Martinez cruised to an 8-3 win. The Expos were getting closer and even though they dropped a couple games in Wrigley over the weekend, Montreal was within three of the lead.
The Mets were coming north of the border for a two-game set in the middle of the following week. It didn’t start well. The lack of starting pitching was underscored by Charlie Lea making his first appearance of any kind since 1984. Predictably, it was a disaster. If nothing else, the Expos couldn’t hit Dwight Gooden, so the 10-0 loss meant they didn’t waste a strong start.
And they were giving the ball to Perez on Thursday. With shortstop Hubie Brooks putting a shine on otherwise tough year at the plate—a double, home run and three ribbies—it was more than enough for Perez, who tossed a complete-game four-hitter. Montreal won 4-1.
It was a “hold serve” series and that was true for the week as a whole. With two weeks to play, it was still St. Louis in first, New York 2 ½ out and Montreal three games off the pace. But the Expos had a hole card—four games with the Cardinals in the final week.
First, they had to get there. The next seven days essentially reversed the previous week. There was a two-game series with the Mets in the middle that ended up a split. The standings were the same going into the final week. Montreal was heading to St. Louis for a Tuesday doubleheader, followed by single games on Wednesday and Thursday. Three wins would keep them alive.
Except that the doubleheader was a complete disaster. The Expos got three hits in the opener and four hits in the nightcap. A brilliant outing from Dennis Martinez went to waste in a 1-0 loss. A solid outing from Bryn Smith went wasting in a 3-0 loss. Montreal was five games out with five to play.
It was all but over. The Expos kept themselves alive another day when Perez won again on Wednesday, but an 8-2 loss on Thursday ended the pennant bid.
Montreal still finished the season 91-71. It was third-best in the National League, a better record than NL West champion San Francisco. It was tied for the fifth-best record in all of baseball. Buck Rodgers was a deserved winner of Manager of the Year. That’s a good year by any measurement and especially given how little everyone was expecting when it all began. The 1987 Montreal Expos were an overachieving team that deserves a nice place in the history books.
The Montreal Expos had been baseball’s rising young team for several years. They had near-misses in the NL East pennant races of 1979and 1980. In the strike year of1981, they finally got over the hump and made the playoffs. A crushing loss in the NLCS left them just short of the World Series, but the 1982 Montreal Expos came into the season determined to take the final step. They were in position to do that, but a mid-September fade left them short again.
Gary Carter was behind the plate and the future Hall of Fame catcher posted a stat line of .381 on-base percentage/.510 slugging percentage and hit 29 home runs. Tim Raines, the talented 22-year-old outfielder finished with an OBP of .378 and ignited the lineup with 78 stolen bases. Andre Dawson slugged .498, hit 23 homers and scored 107 runs. Warren Cromartie’s OBP was .346.
The lineup got further reinforcements from offseason moves. Montreal brought up third baseman Tim Wallach from the minors. Wallach hit 28 homers and drove in 97 runs. That freed up the Expos to trade the previous third baseman, Larry Parrish, in a deal that brought back Al Oliver. A veteran lefthanded bat, Oliver was a complete offensive player whose stat line in 1982 was .392/.514. He drove 109 runs.
It all added up to the third-best offense in the National League. And the pitching was even better. Steve Rogers made 35 starts, won 19 games, posted a 2.40 ERA and finished second in the Cy Young voting. Bill Gullickson, Scott Sanderson and Charlie Lea were all steady starters with ERAs in the 3s. David Palmer made 13 spot starts and put up an ERA of 3.18. Jeff Reardon was the closer and he saved 26 games with a 2.06 ERA. All told, the Montreal staff ended up with the second-best ERA in the league.
Both leagues were split into just two divisions, an East and West and only the first-place team went to the playoffs. Montreal’s principal rivals in the old NL East were the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Expos opened the season in Philly on a Friday afternoon and Rogers tossed a 2-0 shutout. The offense unloaded for eleven runs in a win on Saturday. Montreal was off to a good start.
Early May saw a sharp dip, triggered by four straight losses at home to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team who had broken Expo hearts in the ’81 NLCS. Montreal lost a series to the contending San Francisco Giants. They also dropped two of three to Atlanta, who in the strange geographic alignment of the day, was on their way to winning the old NL West.
The Expos record slipped as low as 16-19 before they ripped off an 8-1 stretch against bad teams from Cincinnati and Houston. At the Memorial Day turn, Montreal was 24-20, in fourth place and four games back of frontrunning St. Louis. Philadelphia and the New York Mets were nestled in between.
A soft schedule stretch in June brought more wins. Montreal took six of seven from the lowly Cubs. The Expos also swept the Mets and helped trigger New York’s disappearance from the pennant race. Montreal pulled into a tie for first. But Pittsburgh, after a slow start, was starting to come on. The Expos and Pirates played nine times going into the All-Star break and Montreal only won twice.
At the break they were a middling 43-42 and back to fourth place and four games back. The Phils and Cardinals were tied for first and now the Pirates were in third. The days off proved to be the right tonic for Montreal. They went 8-4 on a road trip out of the break and St. Louis came to town for a key four-game series.
The Cardinals had a Hall of Fame closer, Bruce Sutter, at the end of their bullpen. The Expos made Sutter’s life miserable. They touched him for three runs in the eighth inning to tie the opener and then won in extra innings. More of the same happened in the second game, an 11-inning win. Montreal took three of the four games. A later return trip to St. Louis saw the Expos take two of three.
But Montreal was stumbling elsewhere. They lost three of four in Philadelphia. They lost two of three to Chicago. On Labor Day, the Expos were very much in the race, only 3 ½ games out. But they had missed an opportunity. The Cardinals and Phillies were still in a dead heat. The Pirates were in fourth, but lurking.
Montreal was in St. Louis to start a three-game set on Labor Day night. A brilliant outing from Gullickson was wasted in a 1-0 loss. Wallach and Dawson led a bounceback on Tuesday, each homering to key a 7-4 win. But more pitching excellence was wasted on Wednesday, this time with Lea as the victim of a 1-0 loss.
The series summed up how the Expos could rank so well in the aggregate—third in the NL in runs scored, second in ERA—but not get over the top. Over a three-game set, they outscored St. Louis, but managed to lose the series.
Even so, Montreal bounced back to sweep the Cubbies and pull within 2 ½ games. The Cardinals and Phillies were playing several head-to-head games in the coming week and a half. If they Expos could play well, they could at least move into second and give themselves a clean shot at the leader down the stretch.
But while the Cardinals were rising to the moment and running the Phils out of the race, Montreal was unable to take advantage. Gullickson had another good performance wasted, this one a 3-1 loss to Chicago. The Expos then blew a 7-3 lead to the Cubs the next day and lost 10-7. The series finale was tied 5-5 before Chicago scored twice in the eighth.
By the time all was said and done, Montreal was 6 ½ out and St. Louis had pulled away from the field. In this critical weekend where two games got away late, Reardon only pitched one inning and that came in the finale after the Cubs already had the lead. In this context, it can’t come as any surprise that manager Jim Fanning was a casualty at season’s end.
The Expos split their final fourteen games and limped in with a record of 86-76. It wasn’t a bad season by any stretch, but certainly not what this organization had spent several years building for. Even by the more generous standards of today, Montreal would have narrowly missed the playoffs. The window of opportunity for the franchise was closing and about to slam shut.
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.
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 Pirateswere 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.
The 1980 Montreal Expos were coming off a breakout year in 1979, when they franchise not only had its first winning season but competed to the final weekend before succumbing to eventual World Series champion Pittsburgh. The 1980 baseball season followed a similar path—Montreal validated their arrival, but again lost a crushing race to an eventual World Series champion, this time Philadelphia.
Montreal was a young team and well-balanced. They ranked fourth in the National League in runs scored, keyed by drawing walks and stealing bases. The Expos were fifth in the NL in ERA, with a bullpen that was deep by the standards of the time.
The team’s most complete players were catcher Gary Carter and centerfielder Andre Dawson, both future Hall of Famers and both in their mid-20s. Carter hit 29 home runs and drove in 101 runs. Dawson posted a .358 on-base percentage/.492 slugging percentage. Another good young talent was 25-year-old rightfielder Ellis Valentine. Though he didn’t achieve the career heights of Carter and Dawson, Valentine might have been the best in 1980, with his .367/.524 numbers.
Left fielder Ron Leflore had been acquired before the season in a trade for lefty starter Dan Schatezeder. It was a risky move, with Schatzeder coming off a 10-5 season and 2.83 ERA in 1979, but it worked out. Leflore stole 97 bases in 1980 and Schatzeder didn’t pitch well until he returned to Montreal three years later.
The other big base-stealing threat was second baseman Rodney Scott, a wizard with the glove and who made the most of his meager .307 on-base percentage by swiping 63 bases. Other offensive contributors included first baseman Warren Cromartie and shortstop Chris Speier, who had respectable OBPS. Third baseman Larry Parrish had a little pop in his bat.
Steve Rogers anchored the pitching staff and the 30-year-old starter went to the post 37 times in 1980. He went 16-11 with a 2.98 ERA. Scott Sanderson, only 23-years-old, was the other key mainstay in the rotation, making 33 starts and also going 16-11. Sanderson finished with a 3.11 ERA.
Manager Dick Williams mixed and matched the get the rest of the pitching put together. Bill Gullickson and David Palmer were both good young starters, as was Charlie Lea. Veteran lefthander Bill Lee struggled in 1980, going just 4-6 with a 4.96 ERA.
Woodie Fryman was the man in the pen, and the 40-year-old showed he could still get it done, with 17 saves and a 2.25 ERA. Williams could also turn to Fred Norman, once a key starter for Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine championship teams of 1975-76, and still a reliable reliever in 1980. Elias Sosa had been a part of recent pennants with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he gave Williams 93 innings of work and a 3.07 ERA. Stan Bahnsen, age 35, worked 91 innings with a 3.05 ERA.
The bullpen was the most experienced area of the team and having four good arms, along with a longer rotation than the norm, gave the Expos good depth for the long haul.
Montreal didn’t start well, losing eight of twelve games to the Pirates and Phillies in the early portion of the schedule. The Expos reached Memorial Day with a 19-17 record, but that was still within 2 ½ games of first-place Pittsburgh, with Philadelphia nestled in between.
It was June 2 that Montreal began to take off, starting an 11-3 stretch that took them from four games out to a half-game up in the NL East. Then they again had problems with their two main rivals, losing five of nine to the Pirates and Phils. The division race was red-hot at the All-Star break, with Montreal up a half-game on Philadelphia and by one game on Pittsburgh.
The Expos enjoyed a 9-3 homestand from July 28 to August 7, but the best teams in the National League continued to be a problem. They dropped three of four in Pittsburgh. And before August was over, Montreal would play seven games with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a strong contender in the NL West. The Expos lost all seven. But they were good enough against the teams they were supposed to be beat, that on Labor Day the race was still unaltered—Montreal was plus-one game on Philly and up two on Pittsburgh.
Immediately following the holiday weekend, Montreal finally beat Pittsburgh, taking two of three behind shutouts from Sanderson and Gullickson. It helped nudge the Pirates into the rearview mirror and gradually begin the narrowing of the race to two teams.
Some treading water then began at the top of the division. Montreal split six games with subpar teams in the Mets and Cardinals, split two more in Pittsburgh and Chicago and then went to Philadelphia for a big three-game weekend series trailing by a half-game with a week and a half left.
Palmer pitched well in the Friday night opener and the game was tied 1-1 in the eighth, but the offense only got four hits and a walkoff home run finally beat Palmer. Now Montreal had to take on Philadelphia’s Steve Carlton, a future Hall of Famer and the ultimate Cy Young winner this season.
Sanderson matched Carlton through six innings and the game was tied 2-2. Carter homered to give Montreal the lead and outfielder Jerry White later doubled in another run. Speier finished with three hits, with Dawson and White coming up with two more in a big 4-3 win. Carter erupted in Sunday’s finale, homering twice and driving in four runs. Dawson had three more hits, while Speier drove in a pair of runs in an 8-3 win.
Montreal was up by a half-game and they kept it going by sweeping St. Louis three straight. But Philadelphia answered, sweeping Chicago four straight. The race was dead even going into the final weekend and the Expos would host the Phillies for the final weekend. It was a simple best two-of-three for the NL East flag.
Sanderson pitched Friday’s opener and was excellent, but the offense was again absent. They only mustered four hits and lost 2-1. It was do-or-die on Saturday, and if they won that, another victory over Carlton would be required on Sunday.
White hit a two-run homer in the third inning, but Montreal trailed 3-2 in the seventh. An error opened the door for the Expos and Scott, who finished with three hits, ripped a double that gave his team a 4-3 lead. It stayed that way to the ninth, with Fryman looking to close it out.
The veteran closer walked Pete Rose to start the inning. Though Rose moved up on a productive out, Fryman still got the next two batters and was poised to get out of it. But he gave up a tying single and the game went extra innings.
Bahnsen was on the mound in the 10th inning and Rose was again leading off. Again, he caused problems, with a base hit. With one out, Mike Schmidt broke Expo hearts when he homered Montreal went quietly in the bottom of the inning and the 6-4 loss ended their pennant bid.
Montreal got over the NL East hump in 1981, reaching the League Championship Series for the only time in their history. But this young and talented team that seemed to have the world at its fingertips in 1980, never got the World Series. 1980 was an outstanding year, but the Schmidt home run at the end is still the memory of unredeemed heartbreak.
Baseball came to Montreal in 1969, but winning baseball took a decade. The Expos were under .500 each of their first ten seasons, including a 107-loss debacle in 1976. That precipitated the hiring of Dick Williams as manager, who had won two World Series titles in Oakland and led the Boston Red Sox to a pennant.
Williams immediately got the team to respectability, 75 wins and 76 wins over the next two years. And the 1979 Montreal Expos were the breakout team that contended for the NL East title to the final day of the season.
Montreal had a core of excellent young talent that included future Hall of Famers in 25-year-old catcher Gary Carter and 24-year-old centerfield Andre Dawson. Carter hit 22 home runs, while Dawson hit 25 home runs, led the team in RBI with 92 and stole 35 bases.
Rightfielder Ellis Valentine joined the youthful brigade and the 24-year-old rightfielder popped 21 home runs and drove in 82 runs. Larry Parrish, age 25 and playing third base, was the most productive of them all in 1979. Parrish batted .307, drilled 30 home runs and finished with 82 RBI.
These four were augmented by veteran help in first baseman Tony Perez, a big part of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine and now 37-years-old. And though the middle infielders, Rodney Scott and Chris Speier, didn’t hit, both were renowned for their ability with the glove.
It added up to an offense that was built on power—third in the National League in home runs, and that didn’t waste time getting after pitchers—last in the NL in walks. Montreal ended up in the middle of the league in runs scored.
That was more than enough to win though, because the pitching was the best in the league. Montreal had made a big move in the offseason, acquiring veteran lefthander Bill Lee from the Red Sox for utility infielder Stan Papi. Lee, whose free-spirit lifestyle clashed with management, was cut loose for pennies on the dollar. The lefty won 16 games with a 3.04 ERA in a sharp rebuke to the unprofessionalism of his former team.
Steve Rogers was a workhorse, joining Lee in working well over 200 innings and Rogers won 13 games with 3.00 ERA. Two young arms rounded out the regular rotation, with 22-year-old Scott Sanderson and 24-year-old Dan Schatzeder, who finished with ERAs of 3.43 and 2.83 respectively.
Williams made extensive use of his bullpen, at least by the standards of the times. David Palmer, a 21-year-old, worked 122 innings, won ten games and had a 2.64 ERA. Stan Bahnsen and Rudy May, two veterans, each worked over 90 innings and May won ten more. And another big veteran pickup, Elias Sosa, signed as a free agent, saved 18 games with a buck-96 ERA.
Montreal came out of the gate fast, winning eight of their first ten, and then sweeping a seven-game homestand against NL West competition. The Expos led the NL East—which then included the Pirates, Cardinals, Cubs, Phillies and Mets—by a game. A 16-game road trip was a big challenge, but Montreal was able to split at 8-8, including a three-game sweep of the Phillies, who had won the division each of the previous three seasons.
The Expos reached Memorial Day percentage points ahead of the Phillies and four games ahead of the Cardinals. Montreal followed it up with consistent baseball throughout June and early July. They went 22-15, with no winning streak longer than four and no losing streak longer than three. They gradually built a division lead that peaked at 6 ½ games on July 6. Then a homestand against non-contenders in the Padres and Giants went awry—the Expos lost five of seven and the lead shrunk to 2 ½ games at the All-Star break.
It was a packed division race—the Cubs were 2 ½ back, with the Phillies and Pirates not far behind and the Cardinals still with a shot at 6 ½ out. Only the Mets were a non-factor at the break.
Montreal slumped in the second half, losing seven of twelve, including a three-game sweep to a Pirates team that was coming on strong and that sweep vaulted Pittsburgh into first place. When the Expos went 5-8 in the early part of August, they fell behind by 3 ½ games. Finally, they stopped the bleeding and went on a 10-3 run, but the Pirates were hot and the 3 ½ game deficit stood as the season hit its final turn on Labor Day. Pittsburgh and Montreal were the only two teams left in the race.
The Expos responded to the September pressure by sweeping a Labor Day doubleheader over the Mets and in a busy week went 7-1 to trim the lead to a game. One week later, Montreal swept Chicago four straight and pulled even as they hosted the Pirates for two games on September 17-18.
Rogers got the ball for the Tuesday night opener and pitched well, but the Expos only mustered six hits in a 2-1 loss. Lee pitched on Wednesday and gave up three runs in the first inning. But he settled in, didn’t give up any more runs and the offense chipped away to tie the game and it went to extra innings. But Pittsburgh first baseman Willie “Pops” Stargell was keying his team’s stretch drive and he hit a two-run blast in the eleventh to win it 5-3.
Montreal was the young team and Pittsburgh the veterans, so it might have been reasonable to expect the Expos to fold. But the opposite happened. They responded by sweeping the Mets in Shea Stadium, taking two of three in Philadelphia and moving back into first place by a half-game. It was time for another big series with the Pirates, four games in old Three Rivers Stadium to begin the season’s final week.
It’s times like these that baseball promises drama and either ecstasy or heartbreak with thrilling moments. What happened instead is that the Montreal pitching, so good all year, came completely undone. They gave up 31 runs in four games and were fortunate to escape with a single 7-6 win in the nightcap of a Monday doubleheader.
The Expos trailed by a game and a half, but their situation was a little bit better than that might appear on the surface. They had played two fewer games than the Pirates due to rainouts and actually only trailed by a game in the loss column. If Montreal could at least pull even in losses, they could make up the two games and control their destiny.
Philadelphia came north of the border and Palmer pitched Friday night’s opener. He had a 2-0 lead into the sixth when Phillie third baseman Mike Schmidt hit a two-run homer in the sixth to tie it. It was oddly foreshadowing of a year later, when a two-run blast by Schmidt would break hearts throughout Montreal. The Expos missed a chance to score in the bottom of the sixth and ultimately lost 3-2 in eleven innings.
It was a missed opportunity, because the Pirates lost. Another tight game went down on Saturday and again Montreal coughed up a 2-0 lead, with Sosa blowing the save for Lee in the eighth. This time the game had a better ending—backup infielder Dave Cash hit an RBI single in the ninth for the 3-2 win. And the Pirates lost again. The Expos were even in the loss column. Their job now was simple—win Sunday, win two makeup games and possibly win a one-game playoff with the Pirates pending how the makeup games went.
But the best-laid plans ran into Philadelphia lefthander Steve Carlton. The best pitcher of his time, Carlton dueled with Rogers and won 2-0. When Pittsburgh beat Chicago, the NL East race was over.
Montreal wasn’t going to disappear from contention. They battled Philadelphia to the final weekend in 1980 before a home run by Schmidt ultimately beat them. The Expos got into the playoffs in the strike year of 1981 and came within a hair of the World Series before Los Angeles’ Rick Monday beat them with a home run.
The legacy of this cast of Expos is one of missed opportunity—that with all this young talent they never reached a World Series, much less won it. But they also brought winning baseball to their city for the first time and that started with the 1979 Montreal Expos.
1981 was the foreshadowing of a new era in baseball, with the introduction of the Division Series. The circumstances weren’t ideal—a players’ strike from mid-June to mid-August pushed MLB to the idea of declaring the teams in first place at the strike to be in the playoffs, where they would then play the teams that won “the second half” after starting from scratch. The 1981 NLDS gave baseball good reasons to like the idea, with both series going the full five games.
The Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers were leading the East & West at the strike (there was no Central Division until the realignment of 1994). The Montreal Expos and Houston Astros won the respective second halves. You can read more about all four teams regular season paths, the key players and decisive moments in their push to October at the links below. This article will focus on going day-by-day through the Division Series.
The series opened in Houston & Montreal for the first two games, and then went to Los Angeles and Philly for the balance of the set.
Los Angeles-Houston: Fernando Valenzuela, the 20-year-old Cy Young winner took the mound for the Dodgers, against the veteran Nolan Ryan and neither pitcher disappointed. No one even threatened until the bottom of the sixth. With two outs, the Astros got a single from Terry Puhl, a walk by Phil Garner and an RBI base hit from Tony Scott for a 1-0 lead. But the Dodgers immediately countered in the seventh with Steve Garvey’s two-out solo home run to tie it.
Houston missed a chance in their own half of the seventh when Cesar Cedeno doubled and stole third to begin the frame. Two flyball outs were too short to get the run home and Fernando escaped.
Valenzuela was pinch-hit for in the eighth. The move made sense—it was to lead off the inning and the player off the bench was Jay Johnstone, a good hitter even before he made his 1989 cameo appearance in The Naked Gun. But it didn’t produce a run, and Los Angeles turned to 24-year-old Dave Stewart to continue the game.
Stewart got the first two outs, but light-hitting Craig Reynolds singled. The Astros weren’t a team noted for home runs in the deep expanse of the Astrodome, but they got on here—Alan Ashby homered and Houston took the opener 3-1.
Philadelphia-Montreal: It was a battle of aces with the Phillies’ sending their future Hall of Fame lefty Steve Carlton to the mound. The Expos had their own #1, Steve Rogers, ready to go. Montreal got to Carlton immediately with a first-inning single from Warren Cromartie. After Jerry White hit into a force out, he stole second, and scored on a hit by Gary Carter, a future Hall of Famer himself.
The Phils quickly tied it in the second on a home run by Keith Moreland, but the Expos peppered Carlton again the second, with consecutive doubles from Tim Wallach and Chris Speier. Wallach had the chance to do more damage in the third when he came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out, but he popped out and Carlton escaped with the score still 2-1.
Montreal just kept coming in the fourth. Speier drew a walk, was bunted over by Rogers and scored on a double by Cromartie. In the fifth, they had a chance to add to the lead when Andre Dawson led off with a triple. But Carlton got Carter and Larry Parrish, escaped the inning and it was still 3-1.
The missed chances might have haunted Montreal, given Carlton finally settled down and the Expos didn’t threaten again. But Rogers was locked in.
Not until two outs in the ninth, when Moreland and George Vuckovich each singled, did the pitcher finally lose it. He was lifted for the talented young closer in Jeff Reardon, who got Manny Trillo to line out to left. It was another 3-1 final, again going to the home team.
Los Angeles-Houston: The names changed on the mound, with two veterans, Jerry Reuss for the Dodgers and Joe Niekro for the Astros. But the results didn’t change. The pitchers kept dominating. Nothing even resembling a threat happened until the seventh, when LA’s Davey Lopes doubled to lead off and was bunted to third. But Niekro got Dusty Baker and Garvey to ground out, and the game went to extra innings scoreless.
It went to the 11th inning and the Dodgers again went to Stewart. By the end of the decade, Stewart would be renowned as one of baseball’s great big-game pitchers. Right now, he was still learning, and Garner and Scott each touched him for singles and there were runners on the corners.
Veteran Terry Forster was summoned to create a lefty-lefty matchup with Jose Cruz. Forster got Cruz on a fly ball too short to pick up the run. Los Angeles manager Tom Lasorda again made a pitching change, calling in Tom Niedenfuer to deal with the right-handed Art Howe.
Niedenfuer got a strike out and the Dodgers were poised to escape. But Denny Walling—a lefty hitter, with no response move left for Lasorda—singled to right and Houston was one win from the NL West title.
Philadelphia-Montreal: The Expos had a deep rotation in 1981 and Bill Gullickson had an even better ERA than Rogers when he took the mound for Game 2. The Phils’ #2 was Dick Ruthven, who had a good career, but ’81 was a rougher year for him.
Montreal capitalized on an error by Mike Schmidt and the pesky Speier drove in an unearned run in the second inning. In the third, Cromartie doubled, Carter homered and the Expos had an early 3-0 lead.
Gullickson picked up where Rogers left off and dominated. Not until the eighth did the Phils start to mount a threat. With two outs, Lonnie Smith doubled and scored on a single by Pete Rose. Bake McBride doubled, and with runners on second and third, Expo fans had reason to be nervous.
Reardon was again summoned. After intentionally walking Schmidt—the MVP third baseman was so feared that it was worth putting him aboard as the lead run—Reardon got Gary Matthews to pop out. The ninth went without incident and it was another 3-1 final.
Both of the home teams, Montreal and Houston, now needed just one road victory in three tries to triumph over the teams that had, for the most part, set the pace in these divisions starting in the late 1970s.
Houston-Los Angeles: The Dodgers played like a desperate team in front of their home fans and wasted little time getting after Astro lefty Bob Knepper. Lopes walked and was bunted up to start the game. Baker doubled the run in, and then Garvey unloaded with a home run. It was 3-0 and that was all Burt Hooton needed.
Houston got a solo shot from Art Howe in the third, but never scored again. Knepper settled in, but in the eighth, Los Angeles broke it open with four singles that produced three wins. The series had its first drama-free ending as the Dodgers stayed alive 6-1.
Montreal-Philadelphia: The Expos looked ready to continue their momentum when they scored first, in the second inning off Larry Christenson. Once again, the normally light-hitting Speier came through, with an RBI single that followed a double by Carter. But in the bottom of the inning, the Phils began to awaken.
Matthews and Moreland started with singles off of Ray Burris. Trillo tied it with a one-out single, and a throwing error on Dawson brought in a second run. The game settled in and went to the sixth still at 2-1 Philadelphia. The Phils then got some breathing room.
Moreland singled, after which a bunt and intentional walk ended Burris’ day. Montreal went to veteran lefthander Bill Lee, once a cornerstone of the rotation for the 1975 Boston Red Sox. Lee couldn’t get Vuckovich in the lefty-lefty matchup, as a single made it 3-1. Rose tacked on another base hit for a 4-1 lead.
Montreal threatened in the seventh, getting two on with one out against Sparky Lyle, a former Cy Young winner for the New York Yankees, but now nearing the end of his career. Lyle still had some veteran moxie and he got a double play ball to escape the inning
Schmidt doubled in the bottom of the seventh off Elias Sosa and it started a two-run inning that put the game out of reach. Montreal got a run in the eighth, but never made it interesting in a 6-2 final.
Houston-Los Angeles: Valenzuela was back on three days’ rest. The Astros, with breathing room, went to their #4 starter Vern Ruhle, although we should note that the Houston rotation was deep and Ruhle, while not having the career of a Ryan or Niekro, was at or close to their level in 1981. And he pitched like it matching Fernando with goose eggs for four innings.
Los Angeles finally broke through in the fifth, with Pedro Guerrero hit a two-out homer. It stayed 1-0 into the seventh when Garvey singled, was bunted up and scored on another big two-out hit, this one a single from Bill Russell.
Houston made a little noise in the ninth, when Puhl doubled. With two outs, Scott kept the game alive with a single that got the Astros a run. But Jose Cruz fouled out. This series was going to a Game 5.
Montreal-Philadelphia: In an NLDS round that produced a lot of good games, but mostly pitchers’ duels. Game 4 of the Expos-Phillies was the best back-and-forth game of this round, a great matchup on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Philly.
The Phils got after Scott Sanderson quickly, doing everything after two outs in the first inning. McBride singled and Schmidt homered for a 2-zip lead. Philadelphia got two more in the third. After Rose singled and Schmidt walked, a double play grounder appeared ready to get Sanderson out of it. But second baseman Jerry Manuel didn’t handle the exchange and while he got one out at first, there were runners on second and third. Moreland, never a great player in his career, but having a great series, singled with two outs and it was 4-0.
Montreal began coming back off Dickie Noles in the fourth when Carter homered. When two walks followed, Philly manager Dallas Green quickly went to his bullpen and Warren Brusstar kept it 4-1. Speier made things happen in the fifth, hitting a leadoff double and scoring a sac fly from White.
The Expos pulled even in the sixth. Parrish singled and then Speier—who else—singled with two outs. John Milner came on to pinch-hit and cut the lead to 4-3 with a base hit. Lyle came out of the bullpen, but another pinch-hit single, this one by Wallace Johnson, tied the game 4-4.
Philadelphia got the lead back in the sixth. Montreal was already on their fourth pitcher, Woodie Fryman, who had been brilliant all year long. But Matthews got Fryman for a solo home run. Montreal immediately tied it when White drew a walk off Ron Reed and scored on a double from Carter.
The Phils looked ready to get the lead right back in the seventh with a runner on third, one out and Schmidt at the plate. But Reardon came out of the pen and got Schmidt to pop out.
Reardon stayed in, while Phils’ closer Tug McGraw came on in the eighth. McGraw worked three scoreless innings and it was still 5-5 in the bottom of the 10th. Reardon had worked 2.2 IP of scoreless ball himself when the Vuckovich came to the plate. This was too much to ask, and Vuckovich lined a home run into the rightfield seats and with the 6-5 win, another Game 5 on Sunday would go down.
Major league baseball had been playing pre-World Series playoff rounds since 1969 in a best-of-five format and no team had ever lost the first two and come back to win. Both the Phillies and Dodgers—along with the Milwaukee Brewers who would attempt the same thing on Sunday in the 1981 ALDS—had the chance.
Houston-Los Angeles: Nolan Ryan had the best year of his career in 1981 and it was left to him to try and save the Astros, with Reuss pitching for the Dodgers. It was another pitchers’ duel—Ryan escaped a jam in the third when he got Baker to pop out with one out and Lopes on third-but the game went to the sixth inning scoreless.
Los Angeles broke through when Baker drew a one-out walk and Garvey singled, setting up runners on the corners. With two outs, Rick Monday singled for the game’s first run. It was all Reuss was going to need, but the Dodgers got more. Mike Scioscia singled in another run, and then an error brought in a third run.
The Houston bats, never very good to begin with, were completely silence and they never put together anything that could be called a serious threat. Garvey tripled in an insurance run in the seventh and with their 4-0 win, Los Angeles had made history.
Montreal-Philadelphia: It was a Rogers-Carlton matchup. Over the scope of their careers, there was no question that Carlton was the vastly superior pitcher, but in the specific year of 1981, it was much closer and this was Rogers’ moment.
In the top of the fourth, after a leadoff single by Parrish and walks by Wallach and Manuel, Rogers came to the plate with one out. It was Carlton’s chance to get a punch-out and escape. But Rogers slapped a single back through the middle it was 2-0.
That was all Rogers was going to need, as he put his team on his back. In the sixth, the Expos added another run to make it 3-0. The Phils mounted their one threat in the bottom of that inning, with two on one out and Schmidt at the plate.
Rogers got the MVP to hit into a double play ball. It was all over but the shouting. Montreal turned back Philadelphia’s bid at history and with the 3-0 win, the Expos were NL East champs for the first time.
1981 DIVISION SERIES MVPS
Major league baseball has never given an official Division Series MVP award, either then or after this round was permanently instituted in the realignment of 1994. It’s an omission I think should be rectified, and that’s what we’ll do here.
Let’s start with the easy one—Steve Rogers would have to be the choice for Montreal. The Expos ace won two games against the best starting pitcher of his generation in Carlton, including the decisive game on the road, and got Game 5’s biggest hit to boot.
There’s three worthwhile candidates for the Dodgers. Garvey went 7-for-19 and homered twice, an in a series that was starving for offense that certainly stands out. But it seems to me that since Houston only scored six runs in five games and Los Angele starters worked deep into games, perhaps we should look at the starting rotation.
That leads us Valenzuela and Reuss. Fernando worked 17 innings, allowed just one run and won Game 4. But Reuss was even better—18 innings, no runs and a shutout against Ryan in the decisive Game 5. I’d take Reuss for this honor.
AFTERMATH FOR THE VANQUISHED
Houston fell off the radar following the collapse of 1981, went into rebuilding mode and didn’t return to contention until they won the NL West again five years later. Philadelphia continued to contend, and returned to the World Series in 1983, though they never won it all again until 2008.
AFTERMATH FOR THE VICTORS
Los Angeles and Montreal continued the five-game fun in the 1981 NLCS, and the Dodgers continued the comeback pattern. They trailed 2-1 in games and were on the road in Montreal for the final two games. Both games were tied in the eighth inning, and a big home run was the difference each time.
Garvey went deep in the eighth inning of Game 4 to break that one open. Rick Monday’s shot in Game 5 was even bigger—it broke a 1-1 tie with two outs in the top of the ninth and won the pennant.
The Dodgers met the New York Yankees in the World Series, and it was one more round of comebacks for Lasorda’s Dodgers. They lost the first two games in the Bronx, and then never lost again. Three straight one-run wins followed at home, and then Los Angeles blew out New York in Yankee Stadium to seal a title in Game 6.
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 Cardinalsand Cincinnati Redsto 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.
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.