1981 Montréal Expos
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Awards and Honors
- All-Stars: Gary Carter, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines
- Player of the Year: Andre Dawson
- Best Rookie: Tim Raines
- Gold Glove: Gary Carter (C) and Andre Dawson (OF)
- Silver Slugger Award: Gary Carter (C) and Andre Dawson (OF)
- Topps All-Star Rookie Team: Tim Raines (OF) and Tim Wallach (1B)
- Players of the Month:
- Minor League Player of the Year: Dave Hostetler Denver (AAA)
- Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Bryn Smith Denver (AAA)
The 1981 Montreal Expos came into the season as the favorites to win their division. After all, they had come within a sliver of the playoffs the two previous years and both times had lost out to the eventual World Series Champions on the last week-end of the season, namely the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979 and the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980. The Expos were full of young stars, had pitching, offense and defense, and plenty of speed. The fans in Montreal were certainly convinced that they were due to have their first taste of post-season baseball.
The Expos made only a few changes before the season began. Left fielder Ron LeFlore departed via free agency, but 1980's Minor League Player of the Year, second baseman Tim Raines, was ready to take over the lead-off spot in the batting order, and to move to left field if that's where there was room for him. The starting rotation had been a bit shaky because of injuries the previous season, so General Manager John McHale signed veteran starter Ray Burris, who had toiled his whole career for losing teams but had generally been reliable on the mound, as a free agent. If Burris' signing would turn out to have been a brilliant move, the team's lone winter trade would come back to haunt them down the line: young second baseman Tony Bernazard was sent to the Chicago White Sox for left-handed pitcher Rich Wortham, who was hit so hard in spring training and in the minors that he never threw a single pitch for the Expos, while Bernazard would likely have been the missing piece of the puzzle in 1982, when the team was desperate for a second baseman. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, since in 1981, that last trade was of little consequence.
The team started the year with all cylinders clicking, as they were 12-4 and in first place by the end of April. However, the Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals were hot on their trails, and by the middle of May, they had both passed the Expos. A five-game losing streak in the first days of June even put them into fourth place for a day, but a sweep of the Atlanta Braves by an aggregate score of 30-3 seemed to have righted the ship and put the Expos back in the chase. However, the last of these wins was on June 11th, the last day Major League Baseball was played until August, because of the 1981 strike. When play resumed on August 10th, teams had agreed to a split-season schedule, under whose terms the four teams which had been leading their divisions when play halted were guaranteed a playoff spot, while the remainder of scheduled games would be played as a sprint to determine these four teams' opponents in the first round of the playoffs. As a result, the Phillies were guaranteed a post-season berth and cruised during the second half of the season, waiting to see who they would face. The Expos, though had their work cut out for them.
There were two major highlights to the season's first half. The first was second-year pitcher Charlie Lea's outstanding performance. After a poor month of April, he threw a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants in the second game of a doubleheader on May 10th (Boxscore) and finished the month with a 4-0, 0.25, record to earn National League Pitcher of the Month honors. Unfortunately, he suffered from arm problems in the second half and was not a factor after his great month. The second highlight was a trade engineered by McHale on May 29th. He sent right-fielder Ellis Valentine, who was having problems getting back on track after a beaning in 1980 and was only hitting .211 at the time, to the New York Mets for young relief pitcher Jeff Reardon. Reardon would claim the role as the team's closer over the second half, and emerge as one of the top relievers of the 1980s.
When the season resumed after its long hiatus, Manager Dick Williams shuffled his line-up: first baseman Warren Cromartie had moved to right field to take over for Valentine, vacating first base; veteran Willie Montanez had taken over first base after the Valentine trade, but he was hitting below .200 with no power or walks, so Williams moved rookie Tim Wallach to first base. Wallach was excellent defensively, but still needed some work to find his stroke at the plate - he hit .236 with 4 home runs in 212 at bats that season, so Williams lobbied for veteran help. McHale turned around on August 20th by sending Montanez to the Pirates for veteran John Milner, who was immediately inserted in the middle of the starting line-up. Milner still had a bit of power - he collected 5 doubles and 3 home runs in 76 at bats with the Expos - but could no longer hit for average, run or field. Williams kept grumbling, while McHale was unhappy with his skipper's failure to mold a group of players which was the envy of the League into consistent winners, while the Cardinals were threatening to run away with the second-half title. On August 30th, Williams made the managerial decision that sealed his fate (Boxscore): in the 11th inning of a tie game against the Braves, he brought in ace pitcher Steve Rogers to pinch run for Gary Carter. On a grounder by Cromartie, Rogers barreled into shortstop Rafael Ramirez to break a potential inning-ending double play; he succeeded, but broke a rib and was out for 12 days, while the Expos lost the game anyway. One week later, on September 8th, McHale made a stunning announcement: Williams had just been fired and was replaced by Jim Fanning, the team's former General Manager from 1969 to 1976 who hadn't worn a uniform since 1963, when he was Manager of the Greenville Braves in the Western Carolinas League.
The Expos were 14-12, a game and a half behind St. Louis when the change was made, but immediately lost their first three games to fall below .500 for the second half. Things were looking terribly bleak, but then the team went on a hot streak. It won 16 of its last 24 games, including a seven-game winning streak from September 20 to 26 that put them into first place. But the Cardinals were refusing to give up, and the season's last series against the Mets in Shea Stadium would be decisive. In the first game, on October 2nd (Boxscore), Steve Rogers pitched one of the best games of his career, blanking the Mets on two weak singles to bring the Expos' magic number to one. The next day's game was hard fought (Boxscore), but a dramatic two-run pinch-hit triple by September call-up Wallace Johnson in the 7th inning gave the Expos the lead they would not relinquish. When Jeff Reardon forced Dave Kingman to hit a weak fly ball to Terry Francona in left field for the last out, pandaemonium erupted on the field: the Expos had clinched a playoff spot for the first time of their existence.
Fanning's strength had been to sort out the uncertainty about who was playing where. He sent Cromartie back to first base, put veteran left-hander Bill Lee back in the starting rotation, made Reardon his closer, and used youngsters such as Wallach and Francona judiciously, as well as the large group of players called up from AAA and AA, among them Johnson, Bryn Smith and Tom Gorman, all of whom made key contributions down the stretch. He also benched washed-up veterans like Milner, Tom Hutton, Rowland Office or Mike Phillips. But it was the strength of their regular line-up that gave the Expos the title: rookie Tim Raines hit .304 and stole 71 bases; Andre Dawson hit .302 with 24 home runs, 71 runs scored and 64 runs batted in; Cromartie hit .304, catcher Gary Carter hit 16 home runs and drove in 42 runs; and third baseman Larry Parrish hit only .244, but was at his best in September, hitting .295 with 25 runs batted in for that crucial month.
The real strength of the team was the pitching staff, however. Rogers was 12-8 with a 3.41 ERA, while the other three main starters, Scott Sanderson, Bill Gullickson and Burris had ERAs of 2.96, 2.81 and 3.04 respectively. Bill Lee, who took over the 5th starter's spot after Charlie Lea went down, posted a 2.93 ERA. In the bullpen, Reardon had a 1.29 ERA in 25 games and Woodie Fryman's was at 1.88. However, their supporting cast, mainly Stan Bahnsen and Elias Sosa, were nearing the end of the line, which would prove to be a problem in the playoffs. This is where they really missed David Palmer, who had pitched extremely well the previous two years and had briefly been activated at the beginning of the second half, but had been prevented by arm woes from taking part in any regular-season games.
- Daniel Caza: "Le championnat (1981)", in Les Expos du Parc Jarry au Stade Olympique, Les Éditions de l'Homme, Montréal, QC, 1996, pp. 186-194.
- Danny Gallagher: "Expos finally make the post-season", in Remembering the Montreal Expos, Scoop Press, Toronto, ON, pp. 65-66
- Norm King: "This Game Had It All; September 21, 1981: Montreal Expos 1, Philadelphia Phillies 0 At Olympic Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 61-62. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6
- Brodie Snyder: The Year the Expos Finally Won Something, Checkmark, Toronto, ON, 1981.
- Mark S. Sternman: "We're Going to the Playoffs; October 3, 1981: Montreal Expos 5, New York Mets 4 At Shea Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 63-65. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6
- Gregory H. Wolf: "Lea Pitches a Giant No-Hitter; May 10, 1981: Montreal Expos 4, San Francisco Giants 0 At Olympic Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 58-60. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6