It seemed a fitting denouement to last weekend's wonderfully improbable Mets-Expos series in New York that in Sunday's final game, with a full-blown pennant race underway in the National League East, the young Mets, 12 of whom began the season with less than two years' big league experience, would start flinging the ball around Shea Stadium like a band of Casey Stengel's 1962 originals. In the Expos' decisive three-run third inning, pitcher Ed Lynch fielded Bryn Smith's sacrifice bunt, wheeled around, fired high to shortstop Rafael Santana covering second—safe!—and then Santana pivoted and gunned the ball to first only to find no one covering.
It was equally apt that Montreal, a team of new faces—12 since last season—would wrap up its 5-1 victory on a two-run homer by second baseman Vance Law, acquired from the White Sox seven months ago. "This team has come together a full month before I expected," said Expos manager Buck Rodgers Sunday, his team nestled in second place, just half a game behind division-leading St. Louis and 1½ games ahead of New York, which went from fourth to first to third during the week.
Before Montreal arrived, the Mets were feeling very good about themselves. They had just pulled off their first four-game sweep of the Cubs in 15 years, attracted their biggest home crowd in eight years (51,778 on Wednesday) and gotten three straight complete games (from Ron Darling, Lynch and Dwight Gooden) for the first time since Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and Tom Seaver did it in 1976. Former President Richard Nixon, a rabid Mets fan, had stopped by the team's clubhouse on Thursday afternoon and chatted with the players. "Still got the red hair, huh?" he asked 41-year-old pinch hitter Rusty Staub. "L'Orange?"
"I've got it, but it's going fast," said Staub.
There was a lot at stake when the Expos arrived the next night—the division lead and front office pride. Everyone had come to agree that the controversial trade between the two teams last December—the blockbuster that sent catcher Gary Carter to the Mets in return for shortstop Hubie Brooks, centerfielder Herm Winningham, catcher Mike Fitzgerald and pitcher Floyd Youmans—had truly helped both teams. "The Mets got what they wanted," said Brooks. "The Expos got what they needed."
What the Mets had wanted, of course, was both a righthanded power hitter and a veteran catcher to work with baseball's youngest pitching staff. Carter, 31, has filled both roles ably. Even with an assortment of injuries (cracked rib, sprained ankle and bruised knee), he was hitting .265 through Sunday with nine homers—five of them game-winners—and 31 runs batted in. Carter is still nettled that some of his former Expo teammates criticized him in the Montreal press after the trade for being, among other things, insincere and egocentric. "I thought those guys were my friends," Carter says with bewilderment.
Of the four men traded for Carter, three are now Expo starters. Winningham, a fleet 23-year-old, was batting .258 through Sunday and covering plenty of ground in center. Fitzgerald, 24, has handled the glove well but is struggling both at the plate (.186) and in throwing out base stealers (just 14 of 78).
Brooks, 28, the former Mets third baseman, was hitting .257 with five homers and 36 RBIs and adjusting well at shortstop in his first full year at the position since 1978, his first year in pro ball. "The thing I don't like is that, after playing six or seven years at third base, I get put at shortstop and people expect me to play it like I've played it my whole life," he says. If the Mets hadn't put Brooks at shortstop late last season when the team was strapped by injuries, the Expos would never have thought to trade for him.
The Expos came to the series opener on Friday with a half-game lead on the Mets and Cardinals in the NL East and a worrisome list of injuries: Seven players were unavailable to Rodgers. The Mets had troubles of their own: five players on the DL and a .230 team batting average. And their starting pitcher for Game I was Rick Aguilera, a 23-year-old with one month of major league experience.
Aguilera pitched five shutout innings, and the Mets built a 4-3 lead through six. Johnson brought in Doug Sisk. The mention of Sisk's name brought thunderous boos in Shea, where Sisk is remembered for costly bursts of wildness. In the last year he has received piles of hate mail, and he has offered teammates money to wear his jersey in warmups. When Sisk, his girl friend and Jesse Orosco were leaving Shea after a recent game, a man jumped out in front of Sisk's car and braced himself in a pistol-firing posture. Everyone in the car ducked—only to discover the man didn't have a gun. Just a joke.
Sisk set down nine in a row to clinch a 6-3 New York win that lifted the Mets into a first-place tie with St. Louis.
Montreal righthander David Palmer started Saturday night's game before a near capacity crowd of 51,513 and cruised through 6‚Öî innings on a 2-0 shutout. With two outs and a runner on second in the seventh, Rodgers brought in ace reliever Jeff (The Terminator) Reardon to clean up. Instead, Reardon gave up a single to Wally Backman. Staub stepped in as a pinch hitter. Choking high on the bat, he drilled a tremendous shot to rightfield—foul by seven feet. He stepped out, then stepped in, the crowd still abuzz. On the very next pitch, Staub, the only player besides Ty Cobb to homer as a teenager and as a 40-year-old, launched one over the wall in right center to put the Mets up 3-2. The stadium rocked with noise.
The Mets' lead grew to 4-2 later in the seventh, but then uncharacteristic mental and physical errors took their toll. Orosco picked up a bunt single that was rolling foul, rightfielder Clint Hurdle let a single skip past him and Backman booted a crucial double-play grounder. Final score in 10 innings: Expos 5, Mets 4. "Not our finest night," said Johnson with a wry smile. And Sunday wasn't much better as New York lost to Montreal for the fifth time in six games this year.
The Expos are staking no claims yet, however. When Brooks was asked what he thought of the big trade now, he replied, "I think we got us a hell of a pennant race, that's what I think."