NEW YORK -- Six weeks ago, Chris Nabholz was a pitcher with an 0-6 record in Triple A who had just been recalled by the Montreal Expos. Montreal was 10 games out of first place in the National League East. Yesterday, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound lefthander put the exclamation point on the Expos' doubleheader sweep over the New York Mets, pitching a one-hitter that left his major-league record at 6-0 and his team right in the thick of a pennant race.
"I was throwing the ball the same way down there," said Nabholz, who played collegiately at Towson State. "It's just a whole different atmosphere around here."
Backed by the fine defensive play of the infield, Nabholz allowed only a sixth-inning single to Tommy Herr in leading the Expos to their sixth consecutive win as they moved to within 4 1/2 games of the first-place Pirates and only two behind the skidding Mets. Nabholz, who struck out six and walked three, used a mixture of sweeping curveballs, a cleverly spotted if not overpowering fastball, and occasionally a change. It is a formula that has worked consistently against the Mets all year. Including yesterday's sweep, the Mets have a 26-34 record in games started by lefthanders.
"Nabholz was outstanding," said Expos manager Buck Rodgers. "He was very, very good at evening out the count when he got behind and then making them hit his pitch."
Nabholz's only anxious moments came in the first inning, when Keith Miller reached third on a walk and two infield outs, and the seventh, when Darryl Strawberry drove a fastball 410 feet, where it was caught against the centerfield fence by Rolando Roomes. He retired the side in order five times, and no Met went beyond first base after the first inning.
"I think this is by far the best game I've ever thrown," said Nabholz, who was promoted from the Expos' Double A club in Jacksonville between games of a June 11 doubleheader with the Philadelphia Phillies. He started the second game and went five innings, getting a no-decision in a 3-2 Expos win.
Four days later, he returned to the minors, but this time to Montreal's Triple A team in Indianapolis. Although he was 0-6 with a 4.83 ERA, he was recalled Aug. 12. Since his return, Nabholz has won six of nine starts, including a seven-inning one-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers Aug. 31, which had been his longest major-league outing.
"I'm exhausted," Nabholz said. "I can't remember the last time I had a complete game. The last inning I just tried to throw everything I had left."
Which is what the Expos will do during their final 13 games, none of which is against the Pirates. There are, however, three games left against the Mets in Montreal beginning Tuesday. For a team that was 9 1/2 games out of first place Sept. 11, a lot has changed in a short time.
"I think right now we definitely have the momentum on our side," shortstop Spike Owen said. "There's a lot of ball left. Things can happen."
Rodgers was more cautious about his team's chances. "This was a great series for us," he said. "But before we're taken seriously, we've got to pass somebody. We're still behind two teams. We've got to pass the Mets and get into second place. I just hope the schedule doesn't run out on us."