MONTREAL - The Montreal Expos are long gone, but there's still a scar in Olympic Stadium from the 1981 playoffs. The ninth inning of the fifth game of the NLCS that year still haunts Montreal baseball fans, even though the Expos have been playing in Washington, D.C., since 2005. Maybe if things had gone differently, they'd still be in Montreal. Unlikely, but maybe.
It was a cold and dreary Monday afternoon when the Dodgers and Expos met for the deciding game. Originally scheduled for the day before, game 5 had been postponed by rain, allowing the Dodgers to give their ace, Fernando Valenzuela, an extra day of rest. The Expos countered with Ray Burris, who had beaten Valenzuela in game 2. The game was still seen as advantage Dodgers, though; they had the pedigree, having gone to the World Series three times in the previous seven years, and they had their ace, the incomparable Valenzuela who had taken the baseball world by storm in 1981 with a 13-7 record and a shocking eight shutouts.
The Expos had the homefield advantage, though, and they thought they might have had karma on their side when the Dodgers couldn't take advantage of a one-out triple in the first. Montreal responded by pushing across a run in the bottom of the first, using a double, a sacrifice, and a double play ball to get on the board.
And that was it, at least for a while. Valenzuela shut things down from there, giving up only two more hits the rest of the way. But Burris, who had thrown a shutout in his game 2 victory, wasn't giving anything up, either, and the Expos' 1-0 lead was looking larger and larger as the game went along.
The Dodgers finally tied things up in the fifth, as Valenzuela himself drove in a run on a groundout to tie things up. Tie game, both pitchers cruising - it looked like it might come down to which pitcher got tired first.
It wasn't fatigue that knocked Burris out of the game. It was National League rules requiring that pitchers bat. Hoping to get a spark, the Expos replaced Burris with a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth, leading to nothing. On to the ninth. In to pitch for the Expos wasn't one of their great relievers, but starter Steve Rodgers. To be fair, Rodgers had been the Expos' top pitcher for most of their existence, and not knowing how long Valenzuela was going to pitch, they wanted someone in there for the long haul if needed. However, Rodgers had thrown a complete game in game 3, so he was pitching on less rest than normal. Plus, he had only made three relief appearances in his eight-year career before that game, so he was entering uncharted waters here.
The first two batters Rodgers faced went down without too much trouble. The third was Rick Monday, who had scored the Dodgers run. Monday drew a 3-1 count, meaning he could look for a strike. He got it. It landed in the seats.
The Expos still had the bottom of the ninth, but they still had Valenzuela to deal with. He got the first two outs with no problems. One out away from a complete-game two-hitter, Valenzuela finally tired, walking the next two hitters. With the winning run on base, the Dodgers didn't take any chances, replacing him with Bob Welch, who was also a starter but at least had significant relief experience. Welch got the last out. The Dodgers went to the World Series. The Expos never played in the postseason again.
The game came to be known in Montreal as Blue Monday, signifying not only the day the game was played but also the man who had hit the devastating home run. While the Dodgers celebrated a World Championship that fall, the Expos were left lamenting what might have been. The 80s were filled with star-studded Montreal teams that kept finishing in second or third place, just missing the one or two players that would push them over the edge. They finally had those players in 1994, the year the postseason was cancelled when the Expos had the best record in baseball.
And that was it. The lost revenue caused by the strike caused the Expos to sell off their stars, and they never contended again. Eleven years after they were the best team in baseball, 24 years after Blue Monday, the Expos had become the Washington Nationals. Their team was gone, but Montreal fans never got rid of the pain of that rainy Monday afternoon. The scar will always remain.