The Overachieving 1987 Montreal Expos

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 1980 when 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.