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.