If a player goes into a slump, Rodgers refuses to let him flail his way out. The manager smugly observes that outfielder Mitch Webster's homer and single in last week's 4-3 defeat of the surging Pirates came after Webster was dropped from the starting lineup the day before. Thus have Expo egos been carefully cajoled into submission.
"The way everybody feels," says pinch hitter Dave Engle, "we can even give Buck a 'Zilla." And they did, a well-deserved one at that, for ordering a sacrifice bunt on a 3-0 pitch.
Back in the spring the mood around the Expos' West Palm Beach training compound was markedly different. "Kind of like an expansion team," says Webster. Dawson had signed with the Cubs as a free agent in early March, and free agent Raines, in spite of his credentials as one of baseball's finest hitters and base stealers, couldn't get the Expos or anyone else to meet his asking price. By the time he took the Expos' offer, he couldn't suit up until May.
Then, with the season just three games old, shortstop Hubie Brooks, who hit .340 in '86, broke his right wrist and was lost for six weeks. "People were telling me this would be the worst team I'd ever play on," says pitcher Neal Heaton, now 12-10 after most of baseball had given up on him. "That scared me." It should have, considering Heaton played on some miserable teams in Cleveland and Minnesota before the Twins traded him and a few roster bodies for Reardon last February.
While Heaton filled one slot in the starting rotation, Rodgers had to scavenge around for the other arms. "Just once I'd like to see a pitching prospect, not a suspect," he said as a parade of veterans, from Len Barker to Bruce Berenyi filed through camp. Sure enough, except for Heaton the starting pitching came around glacially.
In September, however, Montreal's starters had been credited with 13 of 15 victories. Smith had elbow surgery during the off-season and now earns the major league minimum plus an additional $11,000 a start. Through Sunday he had 25 starts, some $275,000 worth, and was 10-8. Veteran Dennis Martinez, whom Baltimore abandoned after he had a bout with alcohol, was 11-3 after beating the Mets 5-4 Thursday for the fourth time this season. And Pascual Perez, who served time in a Dominican jail on drug charges during 1984 spring training, was 6-0 after coming up from Indianapolis. After four-hitting New York on Sept. 17, he said, "The last time I smiled this much was for the jury."
The smiles spread through the stretch, as the Expos won eight on a 12-game road trip then returned home to sweep three from St. Louis. Says Rodgers: "That's what sold every guy in this clubhouse that we were legit." Meanwhile Raines (.329 through last week) and Andres Galarraga (.309) were hot at the plate, and Wallach, who was batting .297 and had picked up 52 of his 117 RBIs with two out, was making a rush for MVP. "For being responsible for your team's success over what was expected, no one else comes close," says his politicking manager.
After a loss to the Mets back in August, Candaele was lingering in the dressing room, tossing a football with a couple of clubhouse boys. One ran a hitch-and-go route out the clubhouse door and down a corridor. Candaele followed him out and let fly.
"Did he catch it?" a teammate yelled.
"No way," said Candaele. "He 'Zillaed it."