While Pittsburgh was playing Chicago in Wrigley Field last Saturday afternoon the Expos watched the game on television with an interest that was passionately one-sided. Every time the Pirates did something well, the Expos moaned. Every time the Cubs excelled, they cheered. Now it was the bottom of the eighth inning and, even though Pittsburgh led 3-1, the optimism in the visitors' clubhouse in Philadelphia was palpable. Chicago's Scot Thompson was on first base, and Dave Kingman, the major leagues' leading home run hitter and the game's potential tying run, was at the plate. "C'mon, Moon Man," said Montreal Catcher Gary Carter, who wanted Kingman to put a ball in orbit. But when Kingman flied out to leftfield, ending the inning, Carter cursed and slam-dunked a newspaper into a nearby trashcan.
After watching the Pirates complete their 4-1 victory, the Expos went out into the rainy cold and split a doubleheader with the Phillies to cling to a half-game lead in the seesaw National League East race. On Sunday the lead was still half a game as Pittsburgh won 6-0 and Montreal triumphed 7-4. And that is where the merry chase stood when the two teams began a three-day, four-game showdown in Pittsburgh on Monday. As important as those games might be, the eventual winner will probably not be determined until this weekend, when again it will be Pirates vs. Cubs, Expos vs. Phils.
Whichever team finishes ahead will succeed by the skin of its clenched teeth. The young Expos and veteran Pirates have been one-two—or two-one—every day since July 28. They've exchanged first place seven times, and neither has ever led by more than four games. Usually the difference has been much less, as it was early last week when Montreal (87-57, .604) and Pittsburgh (88-58, .603) opened a Monday-Tuesday series in Olympic Stadium. Pirate First Baseman Willie Stargell, one of the game's leading authorities on pennant races, spoke for both teams when he said, "There's an epidemic on our ball club: the mouth is dry and the stomach churns. But that's excitement, not pressure, the thrill that comes from being where we are."
A large part of Quebec was there with them. More than 111,000 fans, a league record for consecutive games, enjoyed a taut one-run game on Monday night and an 11-inning thriller on Tuesday. Unfortunately for Canada, the Expos lost both, 2-1 and 5-3, to fall two games behind. The Pirates' Don Robinson was the whole show in the first game, pitching a six-hitter and scoring the decisive run after he had singled in the fifth. Stargell settled matters the next night with a two-run homer.
Despite Pittsburgh's momentary success, this was not to be the end of Montreal's impossible dream. "We're disappointed, not discouraged," said Carter. "There are plenty of games left."
True. But so little time remained in which to play them that Montreal had to double up with doubleheaders: seven in the last 19 days of the season, to be exact, most of them necessitated by early-season rainouts. After losing the pair to Pittsburgh, the Expos were forced to play four games in two days against New York and, thanks to their pitching depth—and the inept Mets—they won them all, 3-1 and 4-1 on Wednesday and 6-3 and 2-0 on Thursday. The Pirates, meanwhile, were splitting a twin bill of their own against Philadelphia, winning 9-6 and losing 6-5, and dropping a single game 2-1. And just like that, only two days after their seemingly disastrous defeat by the Pirates in Montreal, the Expos were back in first.
Should the season end that way, it would mark the fifth time that Montreal Manager Dick Williams has won a league or division title (Boston in '67, Oakland in '71, 72, '73) and the fifth time that Pittsburgh Manager Chuck Tanner has finished second (Chicago in '72, Oakland in '76 and Pittsburgh in '77, 78). As Williams says, "Close only counts in horseshoes." Tanner wants a ringer. "You eat your heart out when you lose," he says. "You die. It takes six weeks to get over the season. I want more than anything in this world to win it all."
Both contenders visited Philadelphia last week and provided drama, excitement and controversy aplenty. While Montreal was battering New York, the Pirates played their three with the Phils. The first game of Wednesday night's doubleheader provided several of those unexpected performances that can make a pennant race memorable. Pittsburgh scored its first run on Tim Foli's first homer of the season, a year to the day after his only home run of 1978. Trailing 6-1, the Pirates rallied with three runs in the eighth and five in the ninth, the winning runs coming on a pinch triple by Manny Sanguillen, a hero of pennant races past, who entered the game with a pinch-hitting average of .189 and no RBIs. Pittsburgh seemed on the verge of sweeping the doubleheader when it built a 5-1 lead midway through the second game—indeed, some of the fellows in the bullpen were throwing a Frisbee around—but the Pirates didn't get a hit or a run the rest of the evening and the Phillies charged back to win.
The Pirates remained punchless on Thursday night, frittering away their energy in a raging confrontation with Umpire Eric Gregg. The score was 1-1 in the sixth inning when Philadelphia rookie Keith Moreland hit a ball over the left-field fence. Gregg judged the ball fair, and while three runners crossed the plate, the Pirates swarmed from the dugout, the bullpen and their playing positions to angrily protest that the ball was foul. They screamed and they hollered and more than a few played bump the ump. Finally, the besieged arbiter sought the advice of Plate Umpire Doug Harvey, who ruled that the ball was indeed foul, thus satisfying the Pirates and many others who had seen the television replay. Even though Pittsburgh won the argument, it lost the game when Philadelphia scored an indisputable run in the following inning and held on to the lead. On Friday afternoon Chicago's Lynn McGlothen beat Pittsburgh 2-0 with a four-hitter. Back in Philadelphia, where the Expos and Phillies were waiting for a game to be postponed by rain, Montreal Second Baseman David Cash said, "I'm feeling better. Those Cubs really put it on the Pirates today."
The first game of Saturday's doubleheader between the Phillies and Expos—a 9-8, 10th-inning loss for Montreal—should have altered the mood of Cash and his teammates, but it didn't seem to. Perhaps it was because the defeat came in a confrontation played out in such splendid style. There were defensive gems, dramatic home runs, stirring comebacks and managerial gambles. Montreal outfielders threw out runners at third and home; Phillie Mike Schmidt and Expo Third Baseman Larry Parrish hit homers; the lead changed hands three times, and the score was tied once; Phillies Manager Dallas Green asked Schmidt to bunt in the ninth with the tying run already in scoring position, and Williams didn't order a walk for Garry Maddox in the ninth with runners on second and third and first base open. (Schmidt sacrificed successfully; Maddox got a hit.) The Phils won when Schmidt drove in the deciding run off Reliever Elias Sosa, Montreal's seventh pitcher.
The Expos were so visibly upset by all of this that they went out and won the second game 8-2, the most one-sided victory by either contender all week. Montreal may be new at this pennant race business, but as it has proved by winning 33 of 44 games since August 10th, it's learning fast.