Although the season isn't yet one-third over, they started polishing their concession speeches in the National League East this week.

The New York Mets have a nine-game lead, the game's best starting rotation and an offense that's a wonderful blend of speed and home runs. What's more, the Mets are getting help from so many unexpected places -- George Foster had 23 RBI in a 23-game stretch and rookie Kevin Mitchell was hitting .329 through Thursday -- it's almost inconceivable that anyone else could win the NL East.

After a 9-17 May, the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals are so bad off that Manager Whitey Herzog said: "I think Gussie [Busch, the Cardinals' owner] is going to see if we can transfer to the American League West for the rest of the season. The Mets are a shoo-in. There's not going to be a race."

Cincinnati Manager Pete Rose said essentially the same thing this week when asked if his Reds and the Chicago Cubs were the year's biggest disappointments.

"We may be just like the Cubs with one difference," Rose said, "and it's all the difference in the world as far as I'm concerned. We're chasing Houston, and the Cubs are chasing the Mets."

Is anyone in either league as good as the Mets, who have a starting rotation with a 26-8 record, are getting a star year from Darryl Strawberry and could bury the competition with 28 straight games against the NL East?

The biggest surprise has been Foster, who had a 17-for-71 streak through Thursday. No big deal, except that of the 17 hits, 10 were home runs and each of the 10 gave the Mets a lead.

"We're not cocky," second baseman Wally Backman said. "We shouldn't get cocky. But on this team, the way we're playing, if we want to be cocky, we can be." . . .

Just when you thought the Chicago White Sox might have disappeared from the news, they're back in style. In this latest installment, General Manager Ken Harrelson has been caught secretly sending three scouts on the road to watch the team.

Two of the men didn't even work for the club, and Harrelson said it's only good business sense to get second opinions on things. Manager Tony LaRussa, naturally, wonders what's going on.

"There's nothing Hawk Harrelson can do that bothers me," LaRussa said, "and I mean nothing."

Reds: A Big Chill

The Reds voted to keep their clubhouse doors closed for a 10-minute postgame cooling-off period, although not everyone thought it was a good idea.

"Here we are nine games out of first and we're having a meeting about the writers," Tony Perez said. When the Reds' public relations man brought the press release down for Rose to see, Rose looked at it, tore it up and said, "My name ain't on it." . . .

The Atlanta Braves now fear that reliever Bruce Sutter may need another shoulder operation. Sutter went on the disabled list this week and conceded his shoulder has gotten little better since last fall's operation. He will try a six-week rehabilitation period before considering the surgery again . . .

The Minnesota Twins tried a weird, moving infield shift on Boston's Wade Boggs last week, and Boggs only went nine for 14. "The moving defense is just trying to get him off his game," Twins pitcher Mike Smithson said. "It's a little novelty thing like trying to put four guys on Larry Bird." . . . The Twins' team ERA is above 5.00, but there has been improvement. Thursday was the first time all season they didn't have one pitcher with an ERA over 10.00.

Meanwhile, the Twins are on a 260-homer pace. The major league record is 240 homers by the 1961 New York Yankees . . .

Since Rickey Henderson joined the New York Yankees last season, he has had an amazing stolen base success rate (117 for 133, or .880). He has been thrown out only seven times by catchers, and California's Bob Boone has three of them. For his career, Boone has caught Henderson 13 times in 39 tries . . .

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner almost said the trade of Don Baylor for Mike Easler was a bad move, saying, "We may have made a mistake on the Baylor trade." His baseball staff thought his wording interesting since they all voted against making it . . . Dave Winfield has been catching heat here for hitting only .240. His two homers and three RBI Wednesday ran his season totals to 10 and 37 . . . A season ago, when he had 26 homers and 114 RBI, he didn't get his 10th homer until his 74th game or his 37th RBI until his 69th. He got both in No. 50 this year.

Look, Ma, Bad Hands

The Los Angeles Dodgers have now made 68 errors, and no other National League team has more than 50, which may not help the sale of General Manager Al Campanis' new video, "The Dodger Way to Play Baseball." . . .

The Cardinals left 17 runners on base Monday in the Astrodome. That's one short of the National League nine-inning record. The next night, the Cardinals left only one runner on base, which is, yes, one short of the record . . . When the Texas Rangers called up 21-year-old, switch-hitting outfielder Ruben Sierra, he made a big, quick impact. His first right-handed hit was a home run off Charlie Leibrandt. His first left-handed one was a home run off Tom Seaver . . .

Bad mayo may have been the perfect cure for Rick Sutcliffe. Before his bout with food poisoning two weeks ago, he was 1-6 with a 5.14 ERA. Afterward, he went 3-0 with a 2.19. Actually, how he discovered his problem is just about as weird. Pitching coach Billy Connors had him taking ground balls at shortstop, and in making throws to first, Sutcliffe discovered he had been short-arming the ball . . .

Kansas City's Dan Quisenberry got his first save since April 20 Wednesday and his first save chance since May 22. "I wanted to keep the game ball," he said. "I don't know how many of these games are left for me. I really don't remember the last time I contributed or was even an asset to this team." He got in only after Steve Farr and Bud Black were knocked out . . . George Brett finally got his first three-hit game of the year in game No. 51. Then he got four hits Friday night. His average climbed from .235 to .275 in a week, and if he's hitting .310 at the all-star break, no one will blink . . .

Manager Sparky Anderson aired out his Detroit Tigers again after a 7-1 loss in Oakland Monday. At one point, Anderson pulled out the lining of his back pocket and talked about pride and what's in a person's wallet as being two different things.