Los Angeles — If it were possible to get new Montreal manager Bill Virdon to take a lie detector test, then it might also be possible to get him to admit (at least to a machine) that the Expos can finish first in the National League East this season.
But the inherent practicality in Virdon, it seems, simply won't let him. Anyway, most of the nation's baseball writers aren't nearly so reluctant. In a vote conducted by The Sporting News, they gave the Expos 30 more first-place votes than the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals.
One reason Montreal looks so attractive is that over the past four years the Expos have the best won-lost, regular-season record in the National League, even if they haven't made the World Series.
Take a new field boss (Virdon); a superb four-man pitching rotation; a better-than-average bullpen; a solution to the team's second base problem; plus four all-stars, and is it any wonder the Expos' bandwagon seems crowded?
Though his low-key approach sometimes fools people, Virdon is an excellent manager. Bill won a division title with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1972; led the New York Yankees to their best record in 10 years in 1974; and got the Houston Astros into the league championship series in 1980 and the division playoffs in 1981. And despite his reputation as a tough disciplinarian, he still manages to win over most players.
The four starting pitchers Virdon is counting on so heavily are Steve Rogers, Charlie Lea, Bill Gullickson, and Scott Sanderson. Last year this foursome allowed no more than two runs in 62 of their 128 starts.
Rogers, who won 19 games, also was the National League's earned-run leader with a 2.40 average. However, after this quartet things look a little thin, although Randy Lerch and Ray Burris have both been major league starters in the past.
The big man in the bullpen is right-hander Jeff Reardon, who had a 2.06 earned-run average last year in 75 appearances, winning seven games and saving 26 more. Complementing him on the left side is 43-year-old Woody Fryman, who kept rolling along in 1982 with a 9-victory, 12-save performance that made him the league's top southpaw reliever. And Bryn Smith, despite only a little more than one year in the big leagues, has shown the ability to keep the ball down while throwing strikes.
But Fryman is strictly a one-inning relief pitcher these days (two at the most under special conditions), which means that if Reardon gets too much work he might not be as effective in September as he was earlier in the season. All this becomes relative, of course, if Montreal comes up with another reliable arm in the bullpen.
''We've got some good front-line pitching, some line-drive punch, and some power,'' Virdon told me recently in Los Angeles. ''But if we were to lose a starting pitcher or any one of our bullpen regulars for any length of time, at this point we don't have enough depth to overcome a situation like that.
''We've got good speed at the top of our batting order in Tim Raines (the NL base-stealing leader in both 1981 and '82) and Bryan Little (the team's rookie shortstop, who beat out Chris Speier in spring training), only I wish we had more,'' Bill continued. ''While the fact that I could go with a set lineup every game pleases me, it also makes it tough to find playing time for any of my utility men. And when your reserves go too long without work, they're apt to lose whatever sharpness they had both at the plate and in the field.''
Montreal should benefit tremendously this year from having Doug Flynn available to play second base right from the start of the season. Until Flynn arrived in a June 1982 trade, the Expos had tried seven players there without finding one they liked for more than a game or two.
Virdon's four all-stars are Raines and Andre Dawson (both outfielders), plus first baseman Al Oliver and catcher Gary Carter. Oliver, the defending National League batting champion, hit .331 in '82, including 22 homers, 43 doubles, and 109 runs batted in.
Carter, who is probably the best backstop in either league, struck out only 66 times last season in 154 games. Gary is not only durable (in the past six years he has caught 91 percent of the Expos' games), but has also swatted 147 home runs during that same period.
Third baseman Tim Wallach, who hit a surprising 28 home runs in 1982 in only his second big league season, seems capable of maintaining that pace. And while Warren Cromartie is still starting in right field, a spot has to be found sometime for Terry Francona, who hit .321 last year in 44 games before an injury cut short his season.
Most baseball experts figure that if the Expos can forget their past failures and simply concentrate on this year, then there is an excellent chance that half of the 1983 World Series will be played in Montreal's Olympic Stadium.