WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- About this time five years ago, Chris Nabholz was beginning to chart an unknown course.
He was on the verge of becoming the signature player in the Division I baseball program at Towson State. His third year would result in a 6-3 record, with a 2.12 ERA, but his draft status was unsettled to say the least.
"I really didn't know what to expect, to tell you the truth," said the 6-foot-5 left-hander, whose career record at Towson State was an unspectacular 17-10, with a 4.39 ERA.
He needed an attention-getter and found it in a strange way -- a losing effort in Towson State's first NCAA tournament game. The team he lost to, the University of Miami, would go on to the finals in Omaha, Neb.
That 4-1 loss to Miami, as it turned out, was the most important game in Nabholz's college career.
"It gave me a chance to show what I could do outside the [Mid-Atlantic] area," he said.
He showed enough, in the eyes of most observers, to jump as much as five rounds in the draft.
"We had two choices in the second round that year , and, basically, we drafted him that high based on that game."
The Expos have had no reason to regret that decision.
After one full year in the minor leagues, Nabholz moved rapidly through the Montreal system and was in the big leagues in 1990. Now, along with ex-Oriole Dennis Martinez and Ken Hill, he is considered one of the anchors of the Expos' starting rotation.
"We're really hoping this will be a breakthrough year for him," said Duquette. "He came along awfully fast, and now we feel he's ready to come into his own."
After going 14-9 during the previous year and a half, Nabholz, 26, was 11-12 last season. But the Expos consider his 3.32 ERA more indicative of his ability than his record.
"We'll use him as the No. 3 man [in the rotation]," said pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, one of two ex-Orioles (hitting coach Tommy Harper is the other) on the Montreal staff. "Until now, the only thing he's lacked has been consistency.
"But I expect him to put his early learning stages behind him and break out this year. His sinker is one of the best in the National League, and he's developed a good curveball to go with it."
In his first 2 1/2 years, Nabholz was primarily a sinker-changeup pitcher whose major asset was control. Kerrigan says he's capable and ready to take the next step.
"He's an intelligent kid, and he knows how to manage a game," said Kerrigan. "He stays away from the big inning. I think he can be a 15- to 18-game winner for us this year."
If he makes the kind of advancement the Expos think possible, Nabholz will be one of the more interesting stories in the National League.
He was lightly recruited out of high school and went to Towson State almost by default, recommended by the father of a former player.
"The big reason [for attending Towson State] was that I'd have the opportunity to pitch regularly [as a freshman]," said Nabholz. "It wasn't guaranteed, but I knew I'd have a chance to pitch four years if necessary."
His only other baseball offer was from Penn State -- and the Nittany Lions wanted the Harrisburg, Pa., native as a first baseman.
"All the rest [of the college offers] were for basketball," said Nabholz.
Mike Gottlieb, who replaced athletic director Bill Hunter as baseball coach in 1988, remembered that the Tigers got Nabholz sight unseen.
"Tony Andrade, whose son John played here from 1981 to '83 and later was in the Rangers system, told Bill about him," said Gottlieb.
"Bill checked with a few scouts, but I don't think he ever saw Chris play -- and I know I didn't -- until he got here," said Gottlieb. "I knew he was good and would help us, but I don't know that I said he was going to the big leagues."
Gottlieb also recalled that Nab- holz was at his best in big games, when the most scouts were in attendance.
"He was dominating against Delaware in the East Coast Conference tournament, before the NCAA," said Gottlieb.
"Then, in Miami, he gave up an artificial turf infield hit and Mike Fiori [an All-American that year] hit a fly ball to right field that just kept sailing until it went out of the park. After that, Chris dominated them.
"I think that's when the scouts decided he was an early pick rather than one in the later rounds."
Said Duquette: "We had good reports from our area scout [Kelvin Bowles] and had him as a possible fourth- or fifth-rounder. But then Whitey saw him against Miami and really liked what he saw, so you could say he jumped at least two or three rounds as far as we were concerned."
The rest is history still in the making.