Los Angeles — The high hopes of spring have never yet really materialized for the Montreal Expos, who would probably need a whirlwind finish in what is left of the season to win the National League East. In fact the only reason the Expos still have a shot at it, struggling as they are below the .500 mark, is that all of the other contenders have also had their problems.
Montreal's lackluster play to date is particularly hard to believe in view of the fact that the Expos are probably going to produce the league's Most Valuable Player in outfielder Andre Dawson and have a strong Cy Young Award candidate in pitcher Steve Rogers.
Dawson, a Triple Crown possibility, leads the league in RBIs, is dueling with Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt for home run honors, and is up there close enough to have an outside shot at the batting crown as well. Rogers, who has been averaging 7.9 innings per start, has personal winning streaks this year of six and five games and is 15-8 overall.
Montreal's lineup fairly sparkles with other All-Stars too, such as veteran catcher Gary Carter; outfielder and stolen base leader Tim Raines; and first baseman Al Oliver, the 1982 NL batting champion. In view of all this talent, it's not too surprising that over the past four years the Expos have the best record of any National League team even though they've only won one division title, in 1981.
''Have you asked him the tough question yet?'' a newspaperman wanted to know as he approached two of his colleagues who were chatting with Carter near the batting cage at Dodger Stadium. What the reporter wanted to know was why Montreal wasn't leading its division rivals by 10 games.
''Listen, if I've been asked that question once since the season started, I've been asked it a thousand times,'' Carter replied. ''I don't have an answer, except that I still think we'll win it. We've got a whole string of games left in September with the Phillies, the Pirates, and the Cardinals. If we were to get hot then -- well, maybe that's all we'd need.''
Asked about his hitting problems earlier in the season, Gary said: ''I've got myself straightened out and that's over now. For a while I wasn't taking care of myself physically; like not eating the right foods and getting out of shape. But since I started watching my diet and doing 500 situps a day, I've overcome all that.''
When the question about why Montreal isn't leading its division by 10 games was repeated to Manager Bill Virdon, he replied in much the same way as Carter.
''There are some things you can't explain in baseball, and our lack of consistency is one of them,'' Virdon said. ''However, we are not alone in our division with that problem. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis at one time or another this year, have all struggled with the same burden. Ten days ago, after a slump, it looked like the Cardinals were out of it. Now, after a winning streak, they are back in it again.
''Early in the season we didn't get the kind of pitching we expected,'' Bill continued. ''We'd stayed close to the leaders because Steve Rogers was winning most of his starts and because Jeff Reardon saved a lot of games coming out of the bullpen. However, the rest of our relievers weren't really doing the job. You look at Reardon's total saves and you're impressed, except that he got most of them early.''
On Aug. 17, in what most experts felt was a great trade for Montreal, the Expos obtained All Star second baseman Manny Trillo from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for minor league outfielder Don Carter and cash. Trillo, who is a tough out at the plate, went 89 games last year with Philadelphia without making an error.''
''Unfortunately for Trillo and us, Manny injured his leg just before we traded for him,'' Virdon explained. ''So far he's played one game for us. He didn't do well and we won't risk losing him for the year by playing him again before he's ready. But we obviously didn't get Trillo to sit on the bench; we got him because we thought he might give us the edge we need to win over the final weeks of the season.''
Virdon, who is a very quiet but direct person, was later asked if there wasn't some way a manager could beat the problems of inconsistency, especially with what is basically a veteran team.
''To me a manager's primary job is making sure that his players are ready to perform to the best of their ability,'' Bill said. ''A manager should be able to spot it when a veteran is doing something wrong and correct it before it gets out of hand.
''Even conscientious players sometimes get careless about their hitting or fielding without realizing it, and it's up to the manager to catch that, too,'' he added. ''Once a game starts, a manager's job is in the hands of his players, so he'd better know everything they can and can't do. It also helps if a manager has a bullpen with two or three effective people in it.''