There’s nothing like a baseball pennant race. No other sport provides the daily excitement, the sustained suspense through September that two or three teams in a baseball league can create. Nothing stirs taxi-cab and barroom debate like a tight one. For aficionados of the National League, 1980 will be remembered as a vintage year. This week, as the game of summer began its 26th and final week, only two games separated the leaders in the Western Division, the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers with the Cincinnati Reds close behind. As if that were not enough, the Astros and Dodgers would play each other in their last three games. And in the East, the Montreal Expos are at it again. In 1979, they lost the last game of the season to Philadelphia, and the Pittsburgh Pirates won the pennant. This weekend in Montreal, they will end their season as they started it with three games against Philadelphia. To the victor will go the pennant.
When the pennant race comes to Chicago, it comes via the visitor’s clubhouse. That’s a baseball tradition, maintained last week when the Expos came to town. Each year the Chicago Cubs of the National League and the White Sox of the American fade with the ivy on the outfield walls at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field. With the approach of autumn, Chicagoans turn away to watch their football Bears lose and to ignore their hockey Black Hawks. That’s a Chicago tradition. “It’s hard for those guys [the Cubs] to come to the ball park every day,” Expos third baseman Larry Parrish was saying. “They’re about 25 games behind us and look, there won’t be many more than 1,000 people to watch those games.” But for the Expos, after 12 years of frustration, it’s no longer hard to come to the park. They moved into first place ahead of the defending World Series champion Pirates and the Phillies on June 7, and since then have held on to the lead or a share of it for 76 days. They had come to Chicago after winning one of two games against the Pirates and led the Phillies by baseball’s unique “Vz game.” They would leave two days later trailing by a “Vz game.”
After the race of ’79, the Expos decided to go for it in ’80. They hired Ron LeFlore to run their race for them. Blessed with startling speed, LeFlore has come through with what Expos manager Dick Williams likes to call “an added dimension.” Going into Chicago, LeFlore had stolen 93 bases. Batting behind him, second baseman Rodney Scott had stolen 61. Their total for 154 was six more than any two team-mates had stolen in major-league history. But the LeFlore dimension has been missing of late. He crashed into a wall at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium chasing a foul ball. At week’s end, as the race heated up with the Expos playing three games in Philadelphia, LeFlore, cast on his left wrist, was anxious and unhappy in his
role as a pinch runner. “When we get back to Montreal I’m gonna get this thing taken off. I wanna play in those last games.”
Already back there was another of Montreal’s crucial dimensions, right fielder Ellis Valentine. Hit by a pitch in late May, Valentine suffered a fractured cheekbone and was out until July 10. He came back and raised his batting average to .313 before injuring his left hip. Valentine recovered again, returned and upped his average to .319. Then diving for a fly ball in St. Louis he
injured his left wrist. He missed all the Expos games last week and may not be back for this week’s critical series.
“Injuries have been the only disappointment this year,” manager Williams moaned last week in Philadelphia. “Last year not one player went on the disabled list. This year we put five on the list if you count pitcher Bill Lee’s two trips.” One of Lee’s injuries was pure “Spaceman,” an image Lee nurtures. He hurt himself tumbling into a wrought-iron fence when jumping to avoid a cat while jogging. A relief pitcher since his latest return (Lee led the Expos starters with 16 victories but has won only four games this year), Lee performed last week in Chicago. One of a half-dozen Expos pitchers to appear in a 5-4 loss, Lee went to the mound in the seventh inning and indulged in a pure comedy routine with catcher Gary Carter.
Lee’s oddball year, however, did open the door for young Expos pitcher Bill Gullickson. Since the all-star break, the 21-year-old has won nine and lost three and set a record for rookies by striking out 18 batters in one game. The veteran of the starters, Steve Rogers, 30, had a 15:11 record and Scott Sanderson, 24, a 15:10 record going into last weekend. But the critical weakness of the Expos this year has been their relief pitching.
As Hall of Famer and Expos broadcaster Duke Snider said, “The way to beat the Expos is to knock out their starters.”
Rodney Scott was philosophical after facing the Cubs’ second reliever in the 5-4 Expos loss last week (the Expos won the first of the two-game series). With the Expos trailing in the ninth inning, Scott came to the plate with two out and runners on first and third. “I couldn’t think of the pressure of the pennant race, how we had to win that game. I just said to myself, ‘You are
either going to walk, strike out or hit the ball.’ I hit the ball.” He hit it hard, a line drive to right field that was caught to end the game. “When we win, we play Another One Bites the Dust in the clubhouse. I put that on after the loss to Chicago to shake the guys up a bit, get ‘em thinking.”
But no songwriter could pen the drama that unfolded on the artificial turf surrounding the dust in Philadelphia. Gary Carter said David Palmer “made just two bad pitches.” They were both hit for home runs. The second came on his first pitch in the bottom of the ninth. The Phillies won 2-1 and led the Expos by 1V2 games.
On Saturday afternoon the dust-covered Expos faced the leagues’ best pitcher, Steve Carlton, 23:8. Mike Schmidt hit his 44th home run off Scott Sanderson in the first, but Carter tied it with his 27th in the second. The Expos clawed their way to a 3-2 lead by the seventh and Andre Dawson’s 39th double knocked out Carlton. This time the ninth was different. Woodie Fryman, 40, struck out the final Phillie with two men on and Philadelphia bit the dust 4-3. The Expos were back within “'/2 game ” and pennant fever was headed for Montreal.
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