Steve Carlton never shows up at press conferences. Today, one might say, he never showed up at all.

The Montreal Expos beat him and the Philadelphia Phillies, 3-1, in the first game of the National League East Division playoff. "Steve Carlton wasn't the Steve Carlton we've seen in the past," said his manager, Dallas Green.

And that means trouble for the Phillies. Although it is difficult to call the first game of a three-of-five series pivotal -- and the Expos aren't ones to gloat -- this was almost like losing a game and a half for the Phillies, whose starting pitchers are named Carlton, Ruthven and . . .

At best after Thursday's game (8:05 p.m.), they go home with a split and no answer to the question: Who pitches game three?

"The first game of any short series is pivotal, and on their part more so," said Montreal shortstop Chris Speier, who scored once and drove in the game-winning run. "They're not set with their starting pitchers. They may have to pitch someone with less rest or someone they don't have a lot of confidence in. This puts so much pressure on them."

If so, the Phillies, who left two on in the top of the ninth, were showing only their best bravado. "With all the runners they had (10 left on base) and that's the best they can beat us, they're in trouble. They've got to think their offense is in trouble," said shortstop Larry Bowa. "That might be the bright spot of the day."

Indeed, the Montreal sky was gray and the only blue showing was from the upper deck of Olympic Stadium, where empty seats abounded. Only 34,327 spectators showed up, but winning pitcher Steve Rogers said he didn't blame those who stayed home. "If you're sitting in your living room with a beer, who's to say that isn't better," he said.

Certainly the game could have been better; the score card looked like a mathematical impossibility. The Expos got three runs on eight hits (five for extra bases), seven walks (three intentional) and four stolen bases. The Expos now have stolen 26 bases off Philadelphia catchers (who have been throwing out fewer than 20 percent of the runners all year) and they scored their first run, in the first inning, on a fielder's choice, a stolen base and a double.

The Expos also had the leadoff man on in every inning and a man in scoring position with less than two out in each of the last seven innings, and managed to score only twice.

Carlton, who lasted six innings, fell behind continually and there were, as Speier said, "an awful lot of 3-2 pitches." Partly that was because of how Carlton pitched and partly because the Expos, in a team meeting, resolved to lay off his slider, the pitch that looks like a strike but isn't.

Still, they scored only three runs. They went ahead for good, 2-1, in the bottom of the second on doubles by Tim Wallach and Speier. They scored in the fourth when Carlton walked Speier, who went to second on Rogers' sacrifice bunt, and Warren Cromartie doubled to left.

"They should have beat the crack out of us," said Mike Schmidt. "They had the opportunity to bury us and couldn't do it."

The Phillies could be said to have buried themselves, with a little help from Rogers and the Montreal defense. They scored only once, on Keith Moreland's second inning home run.

With his team trailing, 2-1, in the third, Pete Rose doubled to left and went to third on Gary Matthews' bouncer to second. But there he stayed. Schmidt lined the ball down the third base line and Larry Parrish made the only kind of play he could: a reflexive, backhand, "will it be in the glove when I look?" grab. Schmidt was out and so were the Phillies.

"It was the best defense I've ever seen us play in the playoffs," said Speier, dead-pan, the Expos never having been in a playoff before.

In the top of the fourth, they stopped the Phillies again. Moreland singled and was sacrificed to second by Bowa. Rogers intentionally walked Manny Trillo. Carlton bounced a ball to the shortstop side of second, where Speier just happened to be. But Speier flipped the ball to second too late, Trillo was safe and Carlton had a single. But Gerry Manuel, playing second because Rodney Scott had been deactivated for the series with a shoulder injury, threw to third and Moreland was out. He lay sprawled on the dirt along the third base line too embarrassed to get up.

"I'm not the speediest man in the world," Moreland said. "I messed it up. Just a stupid mistake."

Four innings later, the Phillies messed it up again. Lonnie Smith led off the eighth with a single down the left field line. On the first pitch to Rose, who faked a bunt, Smith headed for second. He was one far out Phillie fanatic.

"We had two base running mistakes that hurt us at critical times of the ball game," Green said. "Moreland did something a lot of ballplayers do. He assumed the play was made at second when in fact it wasn't . . . Lonnie was slipping and sliding as usual . . . we had cautioned him not to go. He just goofed up, that's all."