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When Montreal's Terry Francona walked into a late-February team get-together at Houlihan's, a watering hole in West Palm Beach, Expo president John McHale pulled him aside and said, "I can't tell you much, but tomorrow morning you should be very happy."

The following day the Expos traded first baseman Al Oliver to San Francisco for pitcher Fred Breining, a deal that, among other things, opened a spot for Francona in the starting lineup.

Oliver took with him a .305 career batting average, prompting outfielder Andre Dawson to say, "I can't say we're as strong as last year without Al Oliver." But as new Expo Pete Rose points out, Francona has "good bloodlines"; his father, Tito, played in the majors for 15 years. Terry also has a good bat, good glove, good head and, at last, a good right knee. As a rookie two years ago, Francona was hitting .321 when he tore up the knee in an outfield accident. It was slow to heal, but this winter Francona hit .320 in Venezuela and stole 12 bases. "I know my knee is as strong as before," he says.

With Rose in left, Tim Raines moves to center and Dawson goes to right, in deference to his aching knees. In deference to his booming bat, which produced 32 homers and 113 RBIs in 1983, Dawson will also serve as cleanup hitter. The Expos not only considered Oliver a defensive liability last season but also found his eight home runs unbecoming to the No. 4 spot in the lineup.

Manager Bill Virdon says the Oliver trade gives the Expos added defense, speed and pitching, although this assumes that Breining's sore right shoulder isn't serious. Virdon also likes his rookie shortstop Argenis Salazar, a Venezuelan, who should tighten the defensive screws. Is this a Virdon-style team? "If it wins it is," he says.

To bolster the bullpen, Montreal acquired Gary Lucas from the Padres. Lucas has more saves (46) than any other NL lefthander over the last three seasons.

For several years the Expos have looked terrific on paper in the preseason and great on the field at times during the season, only to fold in September. "The key ingredient they lacked here was enthusiasm," Lucas says. "Pete Rose, however, brings a lot of that."

How about it, Pete? "I played rightfield in the final game of the last World Series," he recalls. "I hope to play leftfield in the final game of the next Series." He just might do it.

The 50 wins by Steve Rogers, Bill Gullickson (both 17-12) and Charlie Lea (16-11) were the most by three pitchers on any NL club. But from Sept. 11, when the Expos led the East by half a game, to the end of the season, when they finished third, eight games behind, Gullickson was 3-1 while Lea slumped to 1-3 and Rogers to 0-3.