MONTREAL, SEPT. 18 -- By the time spring training began last February, Tim Raines could see the handwriting on the wall: He was going to be back playing for the Montreal Expos, or he wasn't going to be playing for anyone.

His winter of free agency had been a cold, hard experience. The Los Angeles Dodgers had refused to even meet with him, the San Diego Padres had made only a token offer and everyone else said no thanks.

So at 27 and having established himself as arguably the most exciting player in the National League, Raines would be returning to Montreal, back to cold, damp Olympic Stadium and a pitching staff of Neal Heaton and Bruce Berenyi.

"Like everyone else, I thought it was going to be a long year," Raines said.

Like everyone else, Raines is stunned by what has happened to the Expos, the team of which Sparky Anderson said, "I guarantee you a lot of baseball people are rooting like hell for 'em. No one thought they would do anything, and they've got a bunch of young guys out their busting their tails every night. They're what the game is all about."

Along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, in a city that blends French architecture of the '40s with North American influences of the '80s, the Expos might never be as popular as the NHL Canadiens. These Expos, in fact, haven't even gained the following of the Gary Carter teams of the late '70s and early '80s, teams that four times drew more than 2 million.

At Olympic Stadium, where the fans stand and sing party songs, the crowds have been enthusiastic, if not always huge.

"These are good fans," Raines said. "They're not real knowledgeable, but they get excited. When they see we're for real, they'll be here."

By next spring, a lot of people likely will be convinced about the Montreal Expos, the team not only of Tim Raines and Tim Wallach, but of Tim Burke, Jeff Parrett and Andres Galarraga. If the Expos don't win it this season -- and they've been neck-and-neck with the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets for the past six weeks -- they've at least established a foundation and shown that franchise overhauls don't necessarily have to take five years.Late-Bloomers Weather Cold Spring

Rewind to the spring of 1987, and the Expos are on course for a 100-loss season. Andre Dawson has departed through free agency, and two others, Raines and Dennis Martinez, can't re-sign until May. Bryn Smith is recovering from arm surgery, and Jeff Reardon has been traded to the Minnesota Twins.

"We were," Manager Buck Rogers said, "a very so-so club in spring training."

They were so short of pitching that almost any available arm was invited to West Palm Beach for a tryout. Mike Madden, with one victory since 1984, got a chance, as did Len Barker, Pascual Perez, Lary Sorensen, Chris Welsh and Joe Hesketh.

"We knew some of these guys had good arms, and you can never tell," Rogers said.

Outside of Perez, none of the experiments worked out and what would eventually be the heart of their team was elsewhere when spring training ended. Raines was working out with a high school team near Tampa; Martinez was throwing to a catcher at Calvert Hall High School in Baltimore; Smith's recovery was coming along; and Perez was still banned from the major leagues because of cocaine-related problems.

Now here they are in late September with the fifth-best record in the majors and a decent shot at winning.

"Don't count us out," shortstop Hubie Brooks said. "I like our situation. We're getting guys healthy at the right time, and we're gaining a little more confidence every day. Time is running out, but teams have come from a lot more than three games back. We've proven ourselves to a lot of people."

Actually, the Expos have a good blend of everything except, gulp, starting pitching. They're getting big years from veterans such as Raines and Wallach and solid ones from players such as Brooks and Vance Law. Then there are the kids. First baseman Galarraga has driven in 83 runs, and according to St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog, "is the best right-handed first baseman since Gil Hodges."

They've hit only 110 homers, but are fifth in the NL in runs because, like the Cardinals, they stay on the move, stealing bases, hitting-and-running and making things happen.

None of this is a surprise because, as Raines said, "People forget we were in the race last year until Brooks and {catcher Mike Fitzgerald} went down on the same day."

In fact, the Expos were hit so hard by injuries last year that Rogers had his starting lineup together for only 15 games (they were 11-4 in those games).

Then this winter, Dawson and Raines played out their options, their best reliever (Jeff Reardon) was traded away and their best starter (Smith) had elbow surgery. Morale was low when spring training began, possibly because the Expos looked like a disaster waiting to happen.

It didn't because Rogers has pieced together an incredible bullpen and because Martinez and Perez, dumped by Baltimore and Atlanta, respectively, have become first-rate starters (Montreal is 22-3 in their 25 starts).

Since July 11, about the time people expected the Expos to fold, the bullpen went from decent to terrific -- 18-3 with 18 saves. The Expos have won 17 games since Aug. 15, and in those 17 victories, their bullpen has allowed three earned runs in 59 innings (for a 0.46 ERA).

Montreal starters won only two games in August, but with Burke's 92-mph fastball and Bob McClure almost perfect against left-handed hitters (one for their last 25) no one noticed.

"I wanted to go someplace else," Raines said. "That's no secret. But I'm not bitter. The owners made an example of me. I don't like it, but I can't be unhappy about the way things turned out. I'm in a city I love, and I'm playing a game I love. What's wrong with that?"Martinez Goes from Unemployed to No. 1

Heaton (12 victories) and Smith (10) are the only Expos starters in double figures in victories. Martinez (9-3) is second, but it's the former Oriole who has become the No. 1 man.

His ERA wasn't under 5.00 in four seasons in Baltimore, but is a tidy 3.38 this year, a transformation he traces to many things -- winter workouts with Orioles coach Eldrod Hendricks, restored confidence in a new city and his continuing fight against alcoholism.

"It's scary being out of work," Martinez said. "I'd hoped to hook back on with the Orioles, but they didn't want me. I contacted a couple of other teams, and they all said, 'We're going with our kids.' . . . . "

Eventually he re-signed with the Expos and was sent to Class AAA Indianapolis to get his arm in shape.

"This is my baseball home now," he said. "They gave me a second chance, and I can't forget that."

In the manager's office, Rogers, a burly former catcher with the Angels, slips into a heavy sweater for the cool walk to his car. He managed the Milwaukee Brewers for parts of three seasons in the early '80s and said he has learned about communicating, being patient and believing in young players. Like Martinez, he believes he might have found a new baseball home.

"I don't know if we're going to win it," he said, "but we've got a chance. That's all you can ask for. I personally think we're going to be right there, but even if we don't, we've had some fun and turned some heads."