April 23, 1978: Rogers and Knowles pitch Expos into first place

This article was written by Gary Belleville

The Montreal Expos broke camp in the spring of 1978 with the strongest team in their 10-year history, raising expectations for the team’s first winning season. The dynamic trio of Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, and Warren Cromartie were generally considered the best young outfield in baseball, and with five of their eight starting position players 24 or younger, they were clearly a team on the rise. Baseball experts had pegged the NL East Division to be a two-team race between the powerful Phillies and Pirates. The upstart Expos set out to prove them wrong.

The maturing Montreal squad had posted a respectable 75-87 record in 1977, a 20-win improvement over their abysmal 1976 campaign. They would have exceeded the 75-win plateau were it not for their horrid starting pitching, one of the worst rotations in the entire National League. The Expos shored up that weakness in December of 1977 by bringing in a pair of lefties, Ross “The Boss” Grimsley and Rudy May, who had combined to win 32 games for the Baltimore Orioles the previous season. They also purchased the contract of southpaw reliever Darold Knowles in the offseason, although the addition wasn’t enough to stop the Montreal scribes from proclaiming the bullpen as the team’s glaring weakness as the season began.[1] They appeared to have a point, as the 36-year-old Knowles was the team’s only hurler with any significant experience at the big-league level in a short relief role.

After the Expos split their first 10 games of the season, they hosted the Phillies for a three-game weekend set in Montreal. Philadelphia was the two-time defending NL East champion, and even though they were the oldest team in baseball, they still had plenty of gas left in the tank. Their offense was anchored by Greg Luzinski and Mike Schmidt, both in the prime of their careers, while the ace of their pitching staff was 33-year-old Steve Carlton, fresh off a 23-win season and his second Cy Young Award.

After the series opener was rained out on Friday night, the two teams played a twin bill the next day. The Expos swept the doubleheader, with the soft-tossing Grimsley winning the nightcap 5-3 for his third victory in as many starts. The sweep moved the Expos (7-5) into second place, a half-game behind the Mets, and dropped the Phillies (5-5) from first place to fourth.

The series finale was played on a chilly Sunday afternoon, with the game-time temperature near 50 degrees Fahrenheit, although it felt much cooler inside the gray concrete cavern of Olympic Stadium. Montreal sent its ace, Steve Rogers, to the hill. Nicknamed “Cy” by his teammates, Rogers entered the game with a 1-2 record and a 3.72 ERA.

The Phils countered with 36-year-old Jim Lonborg (1-1, 4.15 ERA), who had helped lead the Red Sox to the American League championship in their “Impossible Dream” season 11 years earlier. After he won the American League Cy Young Award in 1967, Lonborg’s career was plagued by a series of injuries, and pitching through general arm soreness became part of his routine.[2]

In the bottom of the first inning, Lonborg retired the first two Expos hitters before Dawson drew a walk and advanced to third on a single by Gary Carter. The elder statesman of the Expos offense, the soon-to-be 36-year-old Tony Pérez, followed with a single that scored Dawson and put Montreal up 1-0.

Rogers wasn’t his usual self in the early innings, as he struggled with his command. In the top of the first, he had surrendered a double and a pair of walks before escaping the bases-loaded jam by getting Garry Maddox to fly out to Valentine in right field. The next inning, Rogers walked the first two Philadelphia hitters, giving him four walks out of the first eight batters. The Montreal right-hander buckled down after the fourth walk and got out of the inning unscathed by retiring the next three Phillies.

Rogers continued to flirt with danger: Schmidt led off the third inning with a single and moved to third on a double by Luzinski. This time the Phillies were able to push across a run, tying the game on an RBI groundout by Jay Johnstone. However, Rogers limited the damage by striking out Maddox and Bob Boone to end the inning. In the top of the fourth, Rogers gave up just a single run on two walks, a hit-by-pitch, and an RBI single by Schmidt, in large part due to a poor bunt by Lonborg that was turned for a 3-6-4 double play for the first two outs of the inning. Despite allowing 11 baserunners in the first four innings, Rogers and the Expos trailed by only 2-1.

Lonborg got into a groove and retired 13 Expos in a row after Pérez’s RBI single in the first inning. His streak was snapped when Cromartie singled to open the bottom of the sixth inning. The next batter, second baseman Dave Cash, doubled to left field to tie the game at two runs apiece. After a Dawson strikeout, Carter was walked intentionally to set up the double play, and then Pérez flied out for out number two. The hot-hitting Valentine, sporting a .412 batting average coming into the game, stroked a clutch single to knock in Cash and put the Expos up by a run. Third baseman Larry Parrish followed with an RBI single of his own to extend the Montreal lead to 4-2 and chase Lonborg from the game.

After Larry Bowa singled to start the seventh inning, Rogers bore down and struck out the dangerous duo of Schmidt and Luzinski. The Montreal hurler was then forced from the game with a blister on his pitching hand, and Knowles was summoned from the bullpen. The veteran reliever put the potential tying run on base by walking Johnstone before getting out of the inning by inducing Maddox to ground into a fielder’s choice.

Knowles, a career .120 hitter, led off the bottom of the seventh with a single off reliever Warren Brusstar and advanced to second on an error by Luzinski. He scored when the next batter, Cromartie, singled to put the Expos ahead 5-2.

The rubber-armed Knowles held the Phillies hitless over the final two innings to record his first save in an Expos uniform, and Montreal moved to the top of the Eastern Division standings for the first time in the season.[3] Rogers, who earned the victory over Lonborg for the second time in 11 days, matched single-game career highs in both strikeouts (11) and walks (7).[4] “Steve had a little trouble finding himself early on, but he’s a pro and he adjusted,” Knowles said. “He got behind on a few hitters, but he came back and struck a few guys out.”[5]

The Expos bullpen, having posted a pair of victories and four saves in the team’s first eight wins of the season, was a source of pride for Knowles. “When we left spring training all the writers and people were saying that the bullpen was our weakness,” he recalled. “We would like to prove the bullpen is not the minus side of this ballclub.”[6]

But Knowles’s optimism was unfounded. The Expos bullpen was easily the worst in baseball in 1978, with Knowles being the only regular reliever who was above replacement level.[7] Given their ineffective bullpen, it was no surprise that Montreal could muster only a meagre .390 winning percentage in their 59 one-run games.

The Expos held onto first place for less than two weeks, although they managed to remain in the division race into late June. Rogers outduelled Carlton at the “Big O” on June 26 to pull Montreal within two games of the Phillies, but Montreal lost eight of its next 10 games and never recovered.

Philadelphia, after taking sole possession of first place on June 24, led the rest of the way to win the division title by 1½ games over the second-place Pirates. The Phils went on to lose their third NLCS in as many years, with the last two playoff exits at the hands of the Dodgers by identical results of three games to one.

The Expos finished in fourth place with a disappointing 76-86 record, a paltry one-game improvement from 1977. However, all was not lost. Grimsley helped take some of the sting out of their 10th consecutive losing season by nailing down his 20th win on the final day of the regular season, and the youngsters had gained valuable experience during the year.[8] Better days were just around the corner for Nos Amours.[9]

 

Author’s note

This was the first major-league game I attended. Going to this game with my father, Donald Belleville, is one of my most cherished sporting memories. Decades later, we were still talking about the foul ball off the bat of Greg Luzinski that got away from us.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.

baseball-reference.com/boxes/MON/MON197804230.shtml

retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1978/B04230MON1978.htm

 

Notes

[1] Ian MacDonald, “Critics Get Eyeful from Expo Relievers,” The Sporting News, May 13, 1978: 9.

[2] Thomas Boswell, “Lovin’ ARMS,” Washington Post, July 2, 1978, washingtonpost.com/archive/sports/1978/07/02/lovin-arms/c77edd5e-3337-4e92-807b-c7919f31fd65, accessed May 27, 2019.

[3] Darold Knowles was a bullpen workhorse. He exceeded 100 innings of relief in a season three times, and he became the first pitcher to appear in all seven games of a World Series, in 1973 with the Oakland A’s. As of the start of the 2019 season, the only other pitcher to appear in all seven games of a World Series is Brandon Morrow with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017.

[4] Steve Rogers did not exceed 11 strikeouts or 7 walks in a game during his stellar 13-year career.

[5] Scott Abbott, “Expos first,” Ottawa Citizen, April 24, 1978: 26.

[6] Scott Abbott, “Expos first.”

[7] A replacement-level player is someone who would cost a team nothing other than a league-minimum salary to acquire. Darold Knowles posted a Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) of 1.6 in 1978. All other full-time relievers in the Expos bullpen had a negative bWAR that season.

[8] Ross Grimsley posted a record of 20-11 in 1978. He was the only pitcher to win 20 or more games in the 36-year history of the Montreal Expos.

[9] Nos Amours is the nickname given to the Expos by their French-speaking fans. The nickname’s English translation is “Our Loves.” The Expos recorded the team’s first winning season in 1979 with a 95-65 record. They were eliminated on the final day of the season and finished two games behind the eventual World Series champions, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The glory years of the Montreal Expos were from 1979 to 1983, when the team drew over 2 million fans per season to Olympic Stadium on a prorated basis (they drew 1.53 million fans to 56 home games in the strike-shortened 1981 season).