1982 Montreal Expos: Another Missed Pennant Race Opportunity

The Montreal Expos had been baseball’s rising young team for several years. They had near-misses in the NL East pennant races of 1979 and 1980. In the strike year of 1981, 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.