This article was written by Gary Belleville
To say that the Montreal Expos faced some adversity on the road to their first-ever playoff appearance would be an understatement. In their first decade of existence (1969-1978), the Expos never finished higher than in fourth place in the National League East standings and their record was below .500 in each of those years. Although the team’s play improved dramatically in 1979 and 1980 thanks to the development of an array of homegrown talent, both seasons ended in heartbreaking fashion.
Montreal was eliminated by the Philadelphia Phillies on the final day of the 1979 regular season when Steve Carlton struck out 12 Expos en route to a three-hit, complete-game shutout at Olympic Stadium. While the Expos posted an impressive 95-65 record that season, they still finished two games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates, the eventual World Series champion.
The conclusion of Montreal’s 1980 season was just as bitter. The Phillies and Expos entered the final weekend of the regular season tied for first place with a three-game showdown between the two clubs in Montreal. In the series opener, Mike Schmidt homered and knocked in both runs in a 2-1 Philadelphia victory. The Expos clung to a 4-3 lead the following day until a stunning two-out RBI single in the top of the ninth inning by Bob Boone sent the game into extra innings. Two innings later, Schmidt ended the Expos’ season by slamming his league-leading 48th homer of the year, and the Phillies went on to win their first-ever World Series championship.
On June 12, 1981, major leaguers went on strike over the issue of compensation for players lost via free agency.1 The strike wiped out a third of the season, and when an agreement was reached on July 31, the owners decided to split the season into two halves, the first split season in the major leagues since 1892.2 As a result, a best-of-five playoff series was added between the first- and second-half winners of each division.
The Expos played mediocre baseball when play resumed on August 10, but a timely seven-game winning streak in late September turned their fortunes around. The team headed to New York for the last three games of the second half with a half-game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals, looking once again to clinch a playoff spot on the final weekend of the regular season. Steve Rogers tossed the game of his career in the series opener, a masterful two-hit shutout that reduced the Expos’ magic number to one.3 Montreal clinched its first postseason appearance the next day, with the game-winning RBI coming on a pinch-hit triple in the seventh inning by Wallace Johnson, a September call-up making only the eighth plate appearance of his career. Roughly 10,000 ecstatic Expos fans celebrated their long-awaited title by jamming into the Montreal airport to greet their baseball heroes as they returned from New York to prepare for their playoff debut.4
The Phillies, in first place with a 34-21 record when the strike hit, earned home-field advantage in the NL East playoff series, while Montreal finished the first half in third place with a disappointing 30-25 mark.
The Montreal-Philadelphia matchup had the earmarks of a postseason classic from the beginning. The Expos were a young, speedy team with great pitching, while the veteran Phillies squad had the most potent offense to go along with the highest ERA of any pitching staff in the league. Philadelphia relied heavily on Steve Carlton, perhaps the best pitcher in baseball at the time.5 The defending World Series champions were a confident – some would say arrogant – bunch, with their ace on tap to pitch the opener.6 “We’ll have our ace Carlton ready to go twice, if necessary,” Pete Rose said. “How many are as good as Carlton? None.”7
The Expos countered in Game One with Rogers, whose career-best start five days earlier lowered his second-half ERA to a sparkling 1.96. Although he battled shoulder issues in the first half, the rest provided by the strike had him feeling better than ever at the end of a season.8
Rogers’ first career playoff appearance got off to a rocky start. After Lonnie Smith led off the game with a single, Rose hit into a tough 4-6-3 double play thanks to a nifty turn by shortstop Chris Speier.9 The defensive gem quickly took on added significance, because the next batter, Gary Matthews, tripled. Fortunately for the Expos, Rogers struck out Bake McBride to get out of the inning without surrendering a run.
Montreal first baseman Warren Cromartie singled to open the bottom of the first inning, and was forced at second on Jerry White’s grounder. Gary Carter then stroked a clutch two-out double to left field to drive in White with the first playoff run in franchise history.
Rookie Tim Wallach opened the bottom of the second with a line drive double into left-center field. After Jerry Manuel lined out softly to shortstop Larry Bowa, Carlton hung a breaking ball to Speier on an 0-and-1 pitch and the Expos shortstop jumped all over it, slashing a line-drive double into left field to deliver Wallach with the go-ahead run.
In the top of the third inning, the Expos’ defense continued to shine. With two outs and Rose on third base, the ever-dangerous Schmidt scalded a one-hopper in the direction of third baseman Larry Parrish, who dove for the ball and made an incredible backhanded grab, got to his feet, and threw out Schmidt on a bang-bang play at first.
The Phillies had an excellent chance to take the lead with two outs in the top of the fourth. With Moreland on second and Manny Trillo on first, Carlton hit a bouncing ball up the middle to Speier, who made a backhanded flip from behind the bag that was a hair late to get the force out at second. Fortunately for the Expos, Moreland overran third base and second baseman Manuel fired the ball to Parrish to end the inning. If not for Moreland’s baserunning gaffe, the Phillies would have had the bases loaded with the top of the order due up. Although Rogers struggled through the first four frames, giving up six hits and two walks, he settled down after escaping this latest jam and got the next 14 outs by facing the minimum number of batters.
In the bottom of the fourth, Speier led off with a walk and was sacrificed to second by Rogers. Carlton, who was struggling with his control, fell behind Cromartie, 3-and-1. Cromartie then launched an opposite-field double to the base of the wall in the left-field corner that easily scored Speier and gave the Expos a 3-1 lead. Carlton tossed six ineffective innings, giving up three earned runs on seven hits and an uncharacteristic five walks.
The top of the eighth inning featured two more great defensive plays by Montreal. After a leadoff single by Smith, Rose pulled his bat out of the way in an aborted drag-bunt attempt and an alert Carter picked Smith off first base. The out allowed the infielders to move back a few feet, and three pitches later Rose hit a soft liner to short that Speier snagged with a well-timed leaping grab that he would not have been able to make moments earlier.11 The fans at Olympic Stadium, likely sensing that fate might well be on their side, exploded with a lengthy standing ovation for Speier.12
Rogers retired the first two batters in the top of the ninth inning, only to be replaced by closer Jeff Reardon after allowing singles to Moreland and George Vukovich. On a 2-and-2 pitch from Reardon, Trillo laced a line drive to left field that rookie Terry Francona flagged down at the edge of the warning track to clinch the victory. The Expos had won their first-ever playoff game!
In the clubhouse afterward, the Expos spoke of their pregame meeting, in which they discussed laying off Carlton’s devastating slider, a pitch that frequently broke low and out of the strike zone.13 Speier, who had a huge hand in the Expos’ victory, effectively summed up the game by stating, “When Carlton is at his best, there’s just nothing you can do about it. But today he wasn’t, and with patience, you can get to him when he’s like that.”14
The series ended up going the distance, with Rogers and Carlton meeting again four days later in Game Five in Philadelphia. Rogers also won the rematch, tossing a six-hit, complete-game shutout that earned the Expos their first playoff series victory in franchise history.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org. The game can be watched on YouTube, “1981 NLDS Game 1 – Phillies vs Expos,” at youtube.com/watch?v=X5cwIOsj75E.
3 Steve Rogers’ start against the New York Mets on October 2, 1981 registered a (Bill James) Game Score of 91, matching his performance against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 3, 1977, for the highest Game Score of his 13-year career.
4 Peggy Curran, “They’re Home! Thousands Greet Victorious Expos,” Montreal Gazette, October 5, 1981, 1.
5 Jerome Holtzman, “Montreal weather, history peril Phillies in opener,” Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1981, Section 6, 2.
6 David Tucker, “ Expos, Phillies Match Up for Classic Series,” UPI Archives, upi.com/Archives/1981/10/05/Expos-Phillies-match-up-for-classic-series/1801371102400/, accessed March 7, 2016.
7 Associated Press, “Expos, Phillies in East Opener,” Daytona Beach Morning Journal, October 7, 1981, 5B.
8 Jeff Katz, Split Season 1981 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 245.
9 Tim Burke, “Defence, Patience Pay Off for Expos,” Montreal Gazette, October 8, 1981, 65.
10 David Tucker, “The Montreal Expos and the Philadelphia Phillies Both Ran…,” UPI Archives, upi.com/Archives/1981/10/08/The-Montreal-Expos-and-the-Philadelphia-Phillies-both-ran/7477371361600/, accessed March 7, 2016.
11 Ian MacDonald, “Expos Top Carlton, Phils in Opener,” Montreal Gazette, October 8, 1981, 65.
13 Tim Burke, “Defence, patience.”