PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- Success is settling easily on the shoulders of Chris Nabholz.
He shrugs and talks quietly of throwing a one-hitter against the New York Mets. His brown eyes dart as he scans the visitors' locker room at Veterans Stadium and discusses the title chances of his team, the Montreal Expos. An attendant puts a box of baseballs on Nabholz's lap, and the rookie with the tousled blond hair and easy smile eagerly signs each ball, finishing his name with a flourish.
This still is unfamiliar territory for Nabholz, only two years removed from the campus of Towson State University. Less than a year ago, he was pitching in the Florida Instructional League. Six weeks ago, he was 0-6 with the Indianapolis Indians, Montreal's Class AAA team. Now, he is in the middle of a division race, as the third-place Expos try to stage a come-from-behind rush to win the National League East.
"There isn't really much pressure on us," Nabholz said. "Everyone counted us out. But we're really in. And it's a lot of fun."
Nabholz is one of the major reasons the Expos have made up ground in the East. In a division loaded with predominantly left-handed-hitting lineups, Nabholz is a silencer, a 6-foot-4 left-hander with a sweeping curveball, above-average fastball, improving changeup and 6-0 record. And suddenly, the Expos are in the race, 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates and two behind second-place New York.
"Is this winnable? I don't know," Montreal manager Buck Rodgers said. "We have to play like hell and hope the schedule doesn't run out on us. But we'll enjoy it while we're in it. I'm surprised that our pitching has done the job. Pitching was supposed to keep us in last place, but it has kept us right in the race."
The Expos lost Mark Langston to free agency in the off-season and traded Zane Smith to Pittsburgh during the season. And yet the Expos, with a mix-and-match collection built around Oil Can Boyd and former Baltimore Oriole Dennis Martinez, have the No. 2-ranked pitching staff in the National League.
Nabholz wasn't supposed to be in this race. After completing his junior season at Towson State, where he was the East Coast Conference Player of the Year, Nabholz was selected by Montreal in the second round of the June 1988 free-agent draft. He figured to need at least three years of minor-league polishing before earning a trip to Montreal.
"Chris is probably a year ahead of schedule," Expos pitching coach Larry Bearnarth said. "What I admire about him is that he doesn't try to overpower people like most rookies. The way he was described to us a long time ago was that he was a lefty with a moving fastball and a curve. He comes as advertised."
And he arrived in the nick of time for the Expos. Nabholz got a quick call-up from the Class AA Jacksonville Expos, earned a no-decision in one start against the Phillies in June and eventually moved on to Indianapolis. Although he was 0-6 in Indianapolis, Nabholz gave up only three earned runs in his last three starts to earn another trip to the majors, Aug. 12.
"I never worried about where I was pitching," he said. "I knew that if I pitched well, someone was watching and would make the move to bring me back to the majors."
Now, Nabholz is trying to pitch a team into the playoffs. He is neither nervous nor intimidated.
"Chris' 6-0 record is not as unblemished as it looks," Rodgers said. "He has had some good outings. He has also struggled some. But through it all, he has maintained his poise on the mound."
Thursday night against the Mets, Nabholz was nearly unhittable. Only a single by Tommy Herr with two out in the sixth stood between Nabholz and a no-hitter. He finished with a one-hitter.
"That was the best stuff I ever had in pro ball," Nabholz said. "I threw a no-hitter at Towson State once, against Hofstra, but that was nothing like this. I tried not to think about the no-hitter, and when it was over, well, I had to go on."
It's that kind of level-headed approach that has won Nabholz acclaim from his veteran teammates. In a recent start against the Chicago Cubs, Nabholz gave up four quick runs, but settled down and earned a victory.
"He kept us right in the game," Montreal catcher Mike Fitzgerald said. "Rookies who give up four runs are usually out of there by the fourth inning -- and this kid just stays in there and wins the game. Against the Mets, he gets a one-hitter, and I can't even remember the last time that team only got one hit. Every pitch was big. Every out was big. He pitched us right into the race."
Nabholz isn't content with simply lifting Montreal into the East race. He wants to play a part in helping the Expos complete a remarkable comeback tale.
"We're in a situation where we have nothing to lose," he said. "All we can do is win as many games as possible and see how it all unfolds."
Date, team, score
Aug. 12 vs. Phil., 6-3
Aug. 25 vs. S.D., 2-1
Aug. 31 vs. L.A., 5-2
Sept. 5 at St.L., 6-2
Sept. 10 at Chi., 7-4
Sept. 20 at N.Y., 2-0