Philadelphia — Which team has the best record in the National League over the past three years? Most fans probably would guess the Los Angeles Dodgers, with such perennial contenders as Philadelphia, Houston, and Cincinnati getting a few votes too. The answer, though, happens to be the Montreal Expos, with a 245-180 won-lost mark for a .570 winning percentage.
The reason the public may not have quite caught up to the Expos yet, isn't hard to figure out, of course. Montreal suffered from a ''Rodney Dangerfield syndrome'' through most of the 1970s, and it takes a while to blot out the memories of the sorry expansion team that represented the city in those years. But the record book says it's time we did just that - and started giving the Expos of the '80s the respect they have so clearly earned.
The new era actually began in 1979 when Montreal made its first serious challenge, going down to the last weekend before losing to Pittsburgh for the NL East championship. In 1980 the Expos again were in it all the way to the final weekend--this time losing to the Phillies. Last year they won the first title in the history of the franchise, beating Philadelphia in a tense, five-game playoff for the division crown, and they start out now as the team to beat in their quest for a another title.
The Expos want even more than that this time, though. They want the World Series trip they could just about taste a year ago until Rick Monday's ninth inning home run in the fifth game of another pressure-packed playoff series ruined the dream. They probably have as good a shot as anyone, too, but like every other team at this stage, the only thing they can think about for now is the first step.
''I'm going to assume that all teams in our division are improved,'' said Manager Jim Fanning as the Expos launched the defense of their title by winning two out of three games here over the weekend. ''That means our team will have to be better than it was last year to win it again--and I think we are.
''We're a much more mature team now,'' he pointed out. ''One big reason for that is just the fact of being in the playoffs for the first time last season. Those are tough, tough series, and there's no question it helps a lot to have been though something like that.''
As for personnel, the major change is the acquisition of Al Oliver and his . 303 lifetime batting average. The 13-year major league veteran has arm problems which probably preclude using him in his normal outfield position, so he has been installed at first base.
''He gives us the left-handed punch we needed,'' Fanning said. ''Our scouts watched him at first base, and he had no problems. And everybody knows the impressive portfolio he brings with him as an offensive player.''
Oliver started paying dividends right away with a three-for-four night including a two-run homer to lead the Expos to an 11-3 rout Saturday night. The other big offensive guns also started well, with catcher Gary Carter also blasting a two-run homer in that game and center fielder Andre Dawson hitting one out in his first 1982 at bat the night before for the only run ace right-hander Steve Rogers needed in a 2-0 opening game victory.
The rest of the lineup has some familiar faces and some new ones. Tim Raines , who led the majors with 71 stolen bases as a rookie last season, is in left field, while Warren Cromartie, who has split his time between the outfield and first base in the past, is the right fielder now with Oliver at first.
Tim Wallach, nominally an outfielder, gets first crack at the third base job vacated when Larry Parrish went to Texas in the Oliver trade; Chris Speier returns at shortstop; and rookie Wallace Johnson is at second base instead of last year's regular, Rodney Scott.
That adds up to some solid hitting and a lot of speed, with more of both on the bench in such reserves as Scott, Jerry White, and young Terry Francona (son of former major leaguer Tito Francona), who took over as the regular left fielder when Raines was injured last September and hit .274 in regular season action and .333 in the divison playoff.
And Fanning, who also is in his first full year after taking over as manager last September when Dick Williams was fired, thinks there's every reason to expect even more from most of these players in the future.
''I see a lot of our homegrown players like Dawson, Carter, and Cromartie who still should have their best years ahead of them,'' he said. ''Now the younger ones like Raines are blending in. And there are Francona, Wallach, and Johnson, who were here long enough last year enough to get the feel of it and to play in some important games.''
And after all this we come to Montreal's main strength: pitching. First there's Rogers, whose victory Friday night was his third straight over the Phillies counting two in the division playoffs. Then there are Bill Gullickson, the Saturday night winner, and Ray Burris, who pitched well enough Sunday to make it a sweep but lost a tough 1-0 decision as the Phillies salvaged the finale of the three-game series. Scott Sanderson rounds out a formidable starting four, with either Dave Palmer or Charlie Lea slated to join the rotation later when it's time for a fifth man. The bullpen is anchored by Jeff Reardon, who came over in a trade last May and was a key factor in the drive to the title.
If there is any question about the Expos, it is that revamped and somewhat uncertain infield, featuring outfielders at both first and third base, a rookie at second, and a more or less average veteran at short. Given the strength everywhere else, though, it should be adequate--and Fanning has a couple of moves he can make if it proves otherwise.
One idea that is ''never far back in my mind'' is to put Raines at second base--a position he has played from time to time in the minors and majors. That would also open an outfield spot for somebody like Francona, thus getting more punch into the attack.
The opening lineup looked good, though, against the Phillies, who along with St. Louis probably pose the biggest threat to the Expos for the division title, even though Fanning declines to come right out and say so.
''I won't identify any other club,'' he said. ''I think we have the best division in baseball. As I said, we'll have to be better to win again--and I think we are.''