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Expos Overlooked, Underrated and in the Race

September 13, 1987|JIM DONAGHY | Associated Press

Before the season started, the story line in National League East was Mets-Cardinals. At the All-Star break, it was questioned whether the Mets could stay with St. Louis. Heading into September, many asked when will New York catch the Cards.

The Montreal Expos?

Oh, they were better than expected and hung in there. A nice little effort for a team predicted to be the club of the '90s -- as in 90 losses.

That nice effort has the Expos two games behind the first-place Cardinals entering a weekend series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

The Expos swept a three-game series with St. Louis at Olympic Stadium this past week and have won 10 of 14 games with the Cardinals this season.

Montreal isn't talking like a team that's glad just to be in the race, but rather a team that can win the race.

After an 8-3 victory over St. Louis Wednesday, second baseman Vance Law put the sweep in perspective.

"This was a big series (with St. Louis) for us, but there's still a long way to go," Law said. "It's always important to beat the leaders in your division, but we have to do just as well when we go into Chicago."

On their recent trip to California, the Expos fell six games out, and it looked like the end. But the Expos were never suppose to have a beginning this year.

From the first day of spring training, Manager Buck Rodgers has taken each game and every problem one day at a time.

And, it seemed there were a lot of problems heading into the season.

--Andre Dawson had signed with the Chicago Cubs as a free agent and Tim Raines couldn't re-sign until May 1 because he, too, had opted for free agency. --Pitcher Bryn Smith, an 18-game winner in 1985, was recovering from an arm injury.

--Jeff Reardon, the team's top reliever was traded for Neal Heaton, a pitcher with career record of 39-56.

When the season started, things didn't get any better as shortstop Hubie Brooks broke his wrist.

"The first 10 days of spring training, there were big, gray clouds all over West Palm Beach," Rodgers recalled. "And it seemed as though every time you tried to instill some confidence in the players, somebody would come in and say 'you guys are awful,' and now you've got to start all over again."

Things started to brighten for the Expos when Raines re-signed with the club on May 1, and in his first game hit a grand slam to help beat the Mets at Shea Stadium.

Raines has hit near .330 since his return and has 44 stolen bases.

With Andres Galarraga at first, Law at second, Brooks at shortstop and Tim Wallach at third the Expos have one of the best hitting infields in baseball.

Wallach is headed for a 120-plus RBI season and Galarraga could reach 100.

Still, few thought the Expos would have enough pitching to stay in the race for the entire season.

Floyd Youmans spent most of the first half of the season on the disabled list and Heaton slumped after a 9-2 start.

The Expos, however, got a big lift from a free agent that they did sign.

While Raines and Dawson were asking the Expos for millions last winter, Dennis Martinez was seeking about $275,000 and eventually settled for $225,000. Since being called up from the minors in June, Martinez has a 9-3 record and a 3.36 earned run average, and of the 18 games he has started the Expos have won 15.

After a successful career with Baltimore, Martinez was acquired by the Expos last season. He started 1987 as a free agent with the Class A Miami Marlins and was re-signed by the Expos and assigned to Indianapolis of the American Association.

"You have to humble yourself once in awhile in life," the 32-year-old Martinez said. "I didn't care what people thought. I had three starts (at Miami) and the Expos re-signed me and I went to Indianapolis."

Montreal, which planned on using Martinez as the No. 3 starter this season, acquired him from Indianapolis on June 8.

"He's a forgotten man in the free agency," Rodgers said. "Everybody talks about Dawson and Raines, but you can't do much without a pitcher."

And, to listen to coach Bobby Winkles the Expos wouldn't be much without Rodgers.

"He's a player's manager," Winkles said. "They like to play for him, and in the modern era of baseball the players have to like you to play for you.

"Also, Buck isn't afraid to do things when he's behind. When that happens to some managers, they'll sit back and play for the big inning. Buck still steals and he lets the guys hit 3-0, and they appreciate things like that."

The Expos have four games left with the Mets and play three with the Cardinals in St. Louis the last week of the season.

"Buck has done an amazing job, not only this year, but last year, too, when we were so decimated by injuries," Winkles said. "Sure, we hit the skids in the second half, but who wouldn't? We hung in there a long time."

The Expos made it even further this year.

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