Late-blooming Expos lag again

When you look at the statistics of the 1982 Montreal Expos (first in the National League in pitching, fourth in hitting, good defense), there is a tendency to ask yourself why this team isn't at least leading its division.

''The fact that we aren't first is something I think about all the time,'' said Manager Jim Fanning during Montreal's last road trip into Dodger Stadium. ''Often on my way home or going back to the hotel after a defeat, I'll ask myself: How could we blow that much of a lead or how could we lose to that particular team?''

''Actually we've been a much better team this year on the road than we've been at Olympic Stadium, and that I can explain,'' Fanning continued. ''We simply made most of our mistakes in our own ballpark, and that should never happen.

''If there is a way to get two runners on second base at the same time or blow an easy chance in the field, it invariably happens to us at home. I don't have an answer for what's causing us to play like that, but I know we're too good a ball club not to overcome that before it's too late.''

What Fanning is hoping for is another typical late-season Montreal drive. That, over the past three years, has given the Expos a combined 63-37 record from Sept. 1 to the end of the regular schedules. Broken down, that's .630 baseball, good enough to win most division races.

''With the kind of pitching depth we have, plus our overall team balance, we're certainly capable of putting together some winning streaks,'' Jim said. ''The point is we've never been out of the race at any time, and that's the sign of a good ball club. We know we can play better than we have, and we will.''

The pitching staff that Fanning rates so highly is headed by right-hander Steve Rogers, this year's All-Star game winner against the American League. Rogers's pitching style was once described by former Montreal coach Norman Sherry as ''looking like a guy falling out of a tree.'' But this is a pitcher who almost never walks anyone and usually finishes what he starts.

The rest of Montreal's rotation consists of Bill Gullickson, Scott Sanderson, Charlie Lea, and David Palmer, with Jeff Reardon and Woody Fryman handling most of the late-inning pressure out of the bullpen. So far it is a staff with a lower earned-run average than highly touted San Diego, Atlanta, Los Angeles, or Houston.

Since the beginning of the season, when the Expos traded third baseman Larry Parrish to the Texas Rangers in part payment for first baseman Al Oliver, Fanning has used a revolving-door policy with his lineup when he's needed it.

For example, after Warren Cromartie was shifted to right field to make room for Oliver, Fanning decided to go with two rookies in his infield - Wallace Johnson at second base and Tim Wallach at third.

Actually this looked like a permanent arrangement until Johnson failed to come up to expectations and Tim Raines (who played the position in the minors) was brought in from left field to replace Johnson.

Chances are Raines would have remained there if his replacement (rookie Terry Francona) hadn't been injured. Fanning handled that problem by moving Raines back to left field and, after some further juggling, using another rookie, Mike Gates, at second base.

''I think what Fanning did under the circumstances was the best of all the moves he could have made,'' said Montreal's All-Star catcher, Gary Carter. ''But when you're forced to shift players around that much, I don't think you settle in as a team as quickly, which could account for why we haven't been quite as good as we thought we'd be.''

''However, just having a guy like Oliver hitting somewhere in our lineup makes us a better team than we were last year,'' Carter continued. ''There is just no way to pitch to Al when he's in a groove, and if he doesn't win this year's National League batting title, he's going to come close.

''My feeling is that the Expos will again be a great September team; that will avoid any kind of serious losing streak because of our pitching; and that by the end of the season we'll be well over the .500 mark at home.

''Being in the same division with Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh makes it tough, of course. But it won't make any difference what they do if we play to our potential and our potential is first place, barring injuries.''

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