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The Strike Zone

Le Grand Cinq: The five best teams in Montreal Expos history

Led by Larry Walker, the 1994 Expos could have been a title winner if not for the strike. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) Led by Larry Walker, the '94 Expos could have been a title winner if not for the strike. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

The Mets and Blue Jays are playing a pair of exhibition games in Montreal's Olympic Stadium Friday night and Saturday afternoon, the first time Major League Baseball has been played in Montreal since the Expos left town after the 2004 season. In recognition of those games and in conjunction with the ceremonies honoring the Expos, we here at The Strike Zone are taking a look back at the Expos' greatest players, as assembled by Jay Jaffe, and, below, the Expos' greatest teams. Though the Expos only made the playoffs once in their 36 years of existence, doing so only by virtue of the bifurcated 1981 season, Montreal enjoyed several other teams that were as good or better than that 1981 squad yet, for one reason or another, fell short of the postseason. These, then, are the five best Expos teams of all time.

1. 1994: 74-40 (.649), first place in NL East

The 1993 Expos finished with a flourish, ending that season with a 30-9 run that brought them up to 94 wins, the second-highest total in Expos history. That was just a taste of what was to follow. Montreal eased into the 1994 season on the strength of a stellar pitching staff fortified by the offseason addition of a 22-year-old Pedro Martinez. They finished May six games over .500 and 3 1/2 games behind defending National League champion Atlanta Braves, the only team in the majors that out-pitched them that year (and barely at that), in the newly re-aligned NL East division. Then, in June, the offense—anchored by 27-year-old outfielders Moises Alou (.339/.397/.592), Larry Walker (.322/.394/.587), and Gold Glove speedster Marquis Grissom in left, right and center, respectively—kicked in. The Expos went 46-18 (a .719 clip) from June 1 until August 11. Then the players went on strike.

The inability of the players and owners to settle their differences wiped out the rest of the season, the playoffs and World Series, rendering the only first-place finish in Expos history painfully incomplete. The Expos were on a 20-3 run when the strike hit, a 105-win pace on the season as a whole, and had gone 108-54 over their last 162 games stretching back into the 1993 season. The team could have gone .500 over the remainder of the '94 season and still finished with a franchise-record 98 wins. Better yet, over the portion of the 1994 season that was played, the per-game attendance at Montreal's Stade Olympique was at its highest in more than a decade. After a quarter-century of futility, the Expos were about to break through. Instead, they broke apart.

The strike crippled the Expos financially, cancelling 38 home games, not counting their potential postseason run and the associated boost in revenues. Mere days after the end of the strike on April 2, 1995, general manager Kevin Malone, acting on orders to slash payroll, traded Grissom, ace Ken Hill, and closer John Wetteland. Three days later, Walker, a free agent, signed with the Colorado Rockies. Those moves gutted the team. The fans didn't come back. Montreal sank to the bottom of the standings, and team's slow, decade-long demise had begun.

2. 1979: 95-65 (.594), second place in NL East

The first winning team in Expos history, the 1979 entry did far more than just eke out a winning record. Led by 25-year-old future Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, a career year from third baseman Larry Parrish (.307/.357/.551, 30 HR), and the league's best pitching staff, bolstered by an offseason trade for veteran lefty Bill Lee and the signing of free-agent relief ace Elias Sosa, the 1979 Expos won 95 games, the most in the team's 36 years of existence, improving by 19 wins over 1978. After a hot start, Montreal spent all but one day of June and July in first place, but the pitching slumped in the latter month, and the We-Are-Family Pirates surged into first place in early August. The resilient Expos battled back, going 30-9 from August 15 to September 23 to reclaim the lead by a half-game, but they met their Waterloo in the season's penultimate series in Pittsburgh, dropping three of four to the Pirates, who went on to win the division by two games and, ultimately, the World Series. Nonetheless, the 1979 team kicked off a golden age of Expos baseball, drawing 2 million fans for the first of four times in team history (all of which would occur between 1979 and 1983, with only the 1981 strike preventing a fifth such season), and initiating a string of a dozen seasons during which the Montreal would finish below .500 just twice.

3. 1987: 91-71 (.562), third place in NL East

As with the 1994 team, the 1987 Expos come with a giant what-if created by the game's volatile labor relations. In the winter prior to that season, the team's leftfielder, Tim Raines, was a 27-year-old six-time All-Star coming off a .334/.413/.476 season in which he won the batting crown and stole 70 bases, his sixth consecutive season with 70 or more steals. Raines was also a free agent that winter, but despite his resume, his free agency couldn't have come at a worse time. Collusion had gripped the game in the winter of 1986-87, with teams collaborating to drive down free-agent prices in part by refusing to out-bid players' former teams if that team had expressed an interest in retaining the player.

The Expos thus had no incentive to pay Raines what he was worth. As a result, Raines and fellow free agent Dawson remained unsigned past the January 8 deadline, after which players would not be allowed to re-sign with their former clubs until May 1. Blocked from his old team, Dawson, whose knees had been badly damaged by the Olympic Stadium turf, managed to engineer his way onto the Cubs, taking a far larger paycut than the one the Expos offered. Raines, feeling he had more of a responsibility to set the market but lacking a serious offer from another team, waited. On May 1, with the Expos four games under .500 and just a game out of last place in the NL East, Raines settled for a contract only marginally larger than the one he had been offered in January and returned to the team.

Raines returned to the Expos' lineup on May 2 at Shea Stadium and tripled in his first at-bat. He then proceeded to go 4-for-5 with a walk, that first-inning triple, a stolen base, three runs scored, and a grand slam in the top of the tenth inning that proved to be the game-winner. He went on to hit .330/.429/.526 on the season with 50 stolen bases and a career-high 18 home runs. The Expos, starting with that May 2 game, went 83-58 the rest of the way, the best record in the National League over that stretch, one game better than the eventual pennant-winning Cardinals. Unfortunately, because of their slow start without their best player, the Expos finished third behind the Cardinals and Mets, albeit just four games out of first place and with a better record than both the NL West champion Giants and eventual world champion Twins. Dawson, meanwhile, hit 49 home runs and won the National League's Most Valuable Player award, an award never won by a member of the Expos, while his replacements in Montreal hit .250/.308/.369 with just eight round-trippers.

Steve Rogers was the ace for two of Montreal's best-ever squads. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images) Steve Rogers was the ace for three of Montreal's best-ever squads. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

4. 1980: 90-72 (.556), second place in NL East

The failure of the 1979 Expos to capture the NL East title was tempered in large part by the fact that the team was contending at all after a decade of losing records. The team's failure the following season, however, was not as easy to take. The 1980 Expos allowed 5.4 runs per game in April, but after moving sophomore Dave Palmer into the starting rotation in May, things picked up. By June 8, the Expos were in first place, from which point they engaged in a season-long battle with the Phillies and Pirates for the division title. Montreal was led on offense by Carter, Dawson, and rocket-armed right fielder Ellis Valentine (who missed all of June after being hit in the face with a pitch and returned in July with half of a football facemask screwed onto his batting helmet) and on the mound by long-time ace Steve Rogers.

By the season's penultimate weekend, the Pirates had faded. The Expos traveled to Philadelphia that weekend and took two of three from the Phillies to reclaim first place by a half a game. They then swept a three-game set at home against the Cardinals, but the Phillies took four straight against the Cubs to erase the half game and pull into a tie atop the division. The final three games of the regular season brought the Phillies to Montreal for a series that would decide the division. Friday night's opener was a tense, 2-1 Phillies win with the winning run coming on a sixth-inning solo homer by Mike Schmidt off Expos starter Scott Sanderson. That made Saturday's game a must-win for Montreal. They had their ace, Rogers, ready to go on five days' rest, took an early lead, and quickly reclaimed it after the Phillies went up in the top of the seventh, handing a 4-3 lead to relief ace Woody Fryman in the top of the ninth. Fryman walked Pete Rose to start the inning, but retired the next two hitters, including Schmidt, on groundouts. But with two out and the speedy Bake McBride on second (having replaced Rose on a fielder's choice), Phillies catcher Bob Boone singled to tie the game. The Expos failed to bring around a leadoff single in the bottom of the tenth, and in the top of the 11th, Schmidt hit a two-run home run off reliever Stan Bahnsen that clinched the division for the Phillies.

5. 1981: 60-48 (.556), first place (second half), lost NLCS to Los Angeles

The Expos would have awful luck with labor strife undermining two of their best teams in 1987 and 1994, but in 1981, baseball's labor problems worked in their favor. On the season as a whole, the Expos finished two games behind the Cardinals in the NL East. However, because the season was bifurcated by a players strike, with the first-place teams from both the first and second halves making an expanded playoffs, the Expos reached the postseason for the first and only time in their history on the strength of a 30-23 (.566) second-half record that was a mere half-game better than that of the Cardinals, who finished second in both halves and missed the playoffs entirely. Dawson had his best season (.302/.365/.533 with 24 homers and 26 steals in just 103 games), Raines hit .304/.391/.438 with 71 steals in just 88 games as a rookie, and the bullpen got a big boost down the stretch from deadline addition and future closer Jeff Reardon (1.30 ERA in 41 2/3 innings).

The newly created Division Series, which wouldn't be played again until 1995, gave the Expos a chance to exact revenge on the defending champion Phillies, which is exactly what they did, with Rogers beating Steve Carlton in Game 1 and combining with Reardon and Game 2 starter Bill Gullickson to hold Philadelphia to just one run in each of the first two games. The Phillies answered back with two wins when the series moved to Philadelphia, but Rogers again bested Carlton in the decisive Game 5, twirling a shutout to send Montreal to the National League Championship Series.

The NLCS brought the Dodgers and another hard-fought series. Ray Burris, a free-agent addition the previous winter, beat L.A.'s rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela with a shutout in Game 2 to even the series, and another complete game from Rogers put Montreal up 2-1 after three games. Game 4 was tied 1-1 when Steve Garvey hit a two-run home run off Expos starter Bill Gullickson to break it open in the eighth. That (and the four runs the Dodgers added against the Montreal bullpen in the ninth) set up another decisive Game 5 and a rematch of Burris and Valenzuela. Burris was again sharp, and the Expos got an early lead plating a leadoff double by Raines. However, Valenzuela was sharp as well, and the Dodgers tied the game up in the fifth, plating a leadoff single by veteran right fielder Rick Monday.

That 1-1 tie held until the ninth, when rookie Expos manager Jim Fanning, who had replaced future Hall of Famer Dick Williams in early September, called on Rogers, working on two days' rest after throwing complete games in his last two starts, to work the ninth. Rogers got Steve Garvey to pop up and Ron Cey to fly out for the first two outs. However, Cey's flyout came on a 3-1 pitch and pushed Raines back to the left-field wall. Rogers then fell behind Rick Monday, 3-1. On the next pitch, Monday hit a pitch up in the zone out to center to give the Dodgers a 2-1 lead. Carter and Parrish worked two-out walks against Valenzuela in the bottom of the ninth to put the tying run in scoring position, but Bob Welch came on to get the final out and send the Dodgers to the World Series. The game, played on a Monday, has come to be known as Blue Monday by fans of both teams. The Expos would never return to the postseason.
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