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1988 Montréal Expos

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Franchise: Washington Nationals / BR 1988 Team Page

Record: 81-81, Finished 3rd in NL Eastern Division (1988 NL)

Managed by Buck Rodgers

Coaches: Larry Bearnarth, Leonel Carrion, Ron Hansen, Ken Macha, Jackie Moore and Bobby Winkles

Ballpark: Stade Olympique

[edit] Awards and Honors

[edit] Season Highlights

The 1988 Montreal Expos basically stood pat. They had played very well over most of the 1987 season and with new General Manager Bill Stoneman a averse to making trades and working within a tight budget, they figured they would go into the season with what they already had. They had to make one change because 2B Vance Law left as a free agent, joining the Chicago Cubs, but they chose to replace him internally, with the previous season's top rookie, utility player Casey Candaele. Another move was prompted by a recognition that CF Herm Winningham would never amount to much as a major league player (as one reporter put it: "He is solely a glove", i.e. very good at catching fly balls, but otherwise deficient when it came to hitting, throwing, or even stealing bases in spite of good speed). So Winningham went to the bench, and in a domino effect, RF Mitch Webster slid over to centerfield, SS Hubie Brooks, who had always been barely adequate at fielding the position, moved to the less challenging right field job, and young Luis Rivera was promoted from the minor leagues to play shortstop. The rest of the line-up, with LF Tim Raines, 1B Andres Galarraga, 3B Tim Wallach and the platoon of catchers Mike Fitzgerald and Jeff Reed, remained unchanged. The bench consisted of pinch-hitter Wallace Johnson, a 43-year-old Graig Nettles, purchased from the Atlanta Braves just as spring training was winding down, who was also confined to pinch-hitting duties, Winningham, infielder Tom Foley, utility player Dave Engle, and whichever catcher was not starting that day.

On the mound, the 1987 season had ended with two veterans picked up from the scrap heap, Dennis Martinez and Pascual Perez, emerging as consistent winners down the stretch; they claimed the top two slots in the starting rotation. Next was steady veteran Bryn Smith and Neal Heaton who had started the previous year strong but faded badly, and Floyd Youmans, supremely talented but just as inconsistent. That meant that two of the previous year's starters were now supernumerary: Jay Tibbs was traded to the Baltimore Orioles just before the season started, while Bob Sebra spent the season in the minors. The bullpen was very strong, however, with Tim Burke and Andy McGaffigan leading the way, backed up by youngsters Jeff Parrett and Randy St. Claire and Joe Hesketh and Bob McClure serving as the two lefties.

For the first time in their history, the Expos opened the season at home. They had planned to do so in 1974, but an early April snowstorm had wiped out those plans. However, they were now playing under a roof at Stade Olympique (it had finally been completed the season before), and they decided to mark the occasion with a "New York, New York" week-end, first playing the New York Yankees for a couple of exhibition games and following that with an opening series against the New York Mets. For Expos fans, however, the April 4th opening day was memorable for the wrong reasons: a crowd of some 55,000 witnessed the Mets hit 6 homers on their way to a 10-6 win. The homers included a titanic blast by Darryl Strawberry off St. Claire that hit the stadium's technical ring just below the newly-installed roof; in a more conventional stadium, the ball likely would have traveled well over 500 feet, but it was hit so hard and so high that the television cameras could not capture it, and all that is left is the awed memory of those who witnessed it in person. The blast was the start of an awful stretch for St. Claire, who was sent down to the minors after only 6 appearances, sporting an ERA of 6.14. If the Expos thought that opening the season at home would get them off to a good start, it proved wrong, as they won only 2 of 6 games over the homestand, then lost their next two games in New York to fall into a quick hole. They recovered to finish the month at 9-11, but were already 6 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had started the year red hot.

Before April was over, two players had lost their spot on the team, the aforementioned St. Claire and Candaele, who hit only .170. Up came rookie Johnny Paredes, who had impressed in spring training, but he only hit .187 and was sent back down by the end of May. Manager Buck Rodgers then decided to form a platoon with the left-handed hitting Foley and the switch-hitting Candaele, who was brought back, but he still was not hitting. On June 21st, Stoneman decided to get rid of some of the dead wood on the roster, bringing up two minor league veterans in place of Candaele and the barely-used Engle, who was released. The two newcomers, 2B Rex Hudler and OF Otis Nixon, lit a fire under the team. At the time the Expos were sputtering along, in fifth place and three games below .500, but starting on June 27th, they won 12 of 14 games with the two new arrivals running wild on the bases. While that winning streak was taking place, Stoneman stepped down from the GM job on July 5th, going back to his duties as Vice-President of baseball operations, while his young assistant, Dave Dombrowski, took over as the youngest GM in baseball at the time. He had no qualms about making trades, and in short order had sent the unproductive Candaele to the Houston Astros, packaged St. Claire, Reed and Winningham to the Cincinnati Reds, and Mitch Webster, who was hitting .255 with no power as the starting centerfielder, to the Chicago Cubs. In return, the Expos received some minor leaguers, but also two players who could help the team immediately, OFs Dave Martinez and Tracy Jones. Both were a lot more productive than the players they replaced, although it was hard to find playing time for Jones, who had little defensive value, in spite of his hitting .333.

Meanwhile, the Expos' pitching was doing well - mostly. Heaton had made a disastrous first start, then went on the disabled list. He took over for an injured Pascual Perez when he returned but did not pitch any better and was banished to the bullpen, where he took over for Bob McClure, whose 6.16 ERA got him released on July 2nd. Heaton ended the season at 3-10, 4.99, writing himself out of the Expos' longer term plans. Floyd Youmans struggled early and was 1-5 on June 6th, before winning two of his next three starts and lowering his ERA to 3.21. That was when disaster struck, in the form of a suspension for cocaine use handed down by the Commissioner's office just before his next scheduled start on June 25th. He would not pitch again that season. The team's two top pitching prospects were called up to fill the voids, John Dopson to take over for Heaton and Brian Holman making his big league debut on the day Youmans was suspended. Both pitched well - they had ERA's of 3.04 and 3.23 respectively, but wins were hard to come by, as they finished the year 3-11 and 4-8. Just about everyone on the staff pitched well in fact, as the team's ERA of 3.08 was the best in team history, and even in what was the worst hitting year in the National League since the second deadball era, was good for an ERA+ of 117. Martinez went 15-13, 2.72; Perez was 12-8, 2.44; and Smith 12-10, 3.00. With Parrett, McGaffigan and Hesketh all having ERAs well under 3.00 in the bullpen, and closer Tim Burke putting up a figure of 3.40 with 18 saves, the Expos were not blown out of many games. The opening day homer onslaught proved to be a mere blip.

One of the most memorable games of the season occurred on July 3rd against the Braves at Stade Olympique. Facing rookie German Jimenez in the bottom of the 1st, Hudler reached base on a bunt single with one out, went to second on a balk, stole third base and then pulled off a straight steal of home against the stunned Jimenez; the Expos then exploded for 6 runs in the 3rd, and Dopson went home a 9-2 winner. By now they were firing on all cylinders, and making their way back into the race for the division title. Their high point came on August 13th, when a 7-4 win over the Mets put them 11 games over .500 and only 3 1/2 games behind those same Mets. Heading into a Sunday doubleheader against the Mets the next day, they had a chance to move even closer, but, legend has it, some of the players talked trash about their opponents after the win on Saturday, the Mets got wind of it, and used it as motivation to sweep the doubleheader, 4-3 and 4-2. The Expos quickly dropped from contention after that, and by the end of August were 11 games out of first, never to threaten again. In truth, whether or not there was trash talking, the Mets were a much stronger team and would finish with 100 wins, 15 games ahead of the Pirates, their closest rivals. For their part, the Expos rode out the rest of the season finishing at .500, 81-81, in third place, 20 games out. The final highlight of the season came on September 24th when Pascual Perez pitched a five-inning, rain-shortened no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies.

With that excellent pitching, it is clear that it was their hitting that sank the Expos in 1988. On the positive side, Andres Galarraga had a tremendous season in the difficult hitting context, hitting .302 with 42 doubles, 8 triples and 29 homers, but he only drove in 92 runs because of a lack of men on base in front of him. He led the National League in hits (184), doubles and total bases (153) (as well as strikeouts). The team's sole representative at the 1988 All-Star Game, he was one of three excellent young first basemen in the league that season, alongside Will Clark of the San Francisco Giants and rookie Mark Grace of the Cubs. He was not surprisingly named the team's Player of the Year. However, Tim Raines fell back to earth after an otherworldly 1987 season, hitting .270 with 12 homers and 48 RBIs, but more importantly missed significant playing time for the first time, being limited to 109 games. His OPS+ was a solid 120, but his replacements did not come anywhere near that figure. Hubie Brooks hit .279 with 20 homers and 90 RBI as the only other starter with an OPS+ over 100, Tim Wallach hit only .257 with 12 homers, Foley hit .265 with no power, and Rivera a terrible .224 with no secondary skills. Nixon and Hudler stole 46 and 29 bases respectively, but Nixon had an OPS+ of only 70 although Hudler was average at 101. On the catching front, the Expos brought up rookie Nelson Santovenia in early May, and he played very well defensively, but only hit .236 with 8 homers; Fitzgerald did a lot better with the bat, hitting .271 with an OPS+ of 116, but his poor throwing arm was a problem. Dave Dombrowski would need to pull off a few more trades to make this team into a legitimate contender.

[edit] Further Reading

  • Danny Gallagher: "Nixon, Hudler persevered a long time", in Remembering the Montreal Expos, Scoop Press, Toronto, ON, 2005, pp. 118-124.

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