On the day when Oakland Athletics reliever Jay Howell learned he'd made the American League all-star team, he visited an orthopedic surgeon who whispered some more sobering words in his ear: You have bone chips in your right elbow and, if you pitch anymore this season, it's going to be with extreme pain.

The recommendation wasn't for Howell to have the surgery immediately, but the inference was clear. He decided to wait, to try to help his team in a year when the Athletics are looking more and more like the AL West's best team.

It hasn't worked out. Howell, once one of the league's most feared closers, has blown his last four saves and now appears close to deciding to have the surgery. The A's may even decide for him because it was Manager Tony LaRussa who leaked word of his injury to the press last weekend.

As he did it and as he admitted that Howell's injury may cost the A's a championship, LaRussa has left no doubt about his feelings for Howell.

"He's a hero," LaRussa said. "A real hero in our '87 season, and he doesn't deserve what's happening." With Howell out, the oddest division race in baseball grows a little more confusing. The A's have been working to convert young Eric Plunk to a short reliever at Tacoma, and in 13 2/3 innings he has 22 strikeouts and a 0.66 earned run average. His problem is that he has a monstrous fastball and nothing else. The lack of a second pitch is why he failed as a starter, but it may not be so important in a relief role.

Plunk and Howell were two of the four young pitchers the A's got in the Rickey Henderson trade. Another is Jose Rijo, who was sent back to the minors this week. He continues to amaze scouts with his terrific arm, but his lack of control infuriates the A's. In 49 major league starts, he has left only two of them without walking a hitter. This year, the A's lost nine of his 10 starts.

Meanwhile, Reggie Jackson had an interesting week. At Fenway Park, public address announcer Sherm Feller introduced him as "Mr. October," and he was presented an autographed picture of Fenway Park by Jean Yawkey. Jackson and the Athletics then went to Detroit and, when he was sent up to pinch hit Wednesday, Sparky Anderson removed left-hander Mark Thurmond and brought in right-hander Mike Henneman. The score was 10-1 at that point, and Anderson said he played against the odds because "he deserves a fair shot to hit one in his last at-bat here. Reggie is a friend of mine." Meanwhile, Jackson continues to insist he'll "probably" retire . . .

There's much less doubt about what team will win the National League East, and there's also little doubt why. The St. Louis Cardinals aren't just getting big years from Vince Coleman and Jack Clark, they're getting incredible years. Coleman has failed to reach base in only five starts, and his on-base average has rocketed from .301 in 1986 to .381. Last Sunday, Clark reached career highs in both strikeouts (96) and homers (28). In extra-inning games, he's six for nine with three homers and six RBI, prompting Manager Whitey Herzog to say: "If you play long enough, he'll end it." He has 15 game-winning RBI, eight on homers. Shrewd Moves Dept.

Los Angeles shortstop Mariano Duncan made three errors in the second inning Thursday, then left the game in the sixth because of a migraine headache . . . Since their 12-42 start, the San Diego Padres have the best record in the NL West and, in the last eight games, the Padres bullpen is 4-1 with two saves and a 0.98 ERA. "They've got a chance to move up pretty quick next year," Herzog said . . . Inflation? When Pittsburgh's Dale Long homered in eight straight games 31 years ago, he earned himself a raise of $2,300 -- from $12,700 to $15,000. Don Mattingly did it this summer, and he's earning $1.975 million . . .

Carlton Fisk had joked about bringing a cooler of beer into the White Sox clubhouse to challenge General Manager Larry Himes' ban on alcohol. Apparently, Himes took the joke as a serious threat because Fisk discovered that a security guard had searched his locker. "I wish I had known that," Fisk said. "I'd have brought them some papaya juice to drink. It shows that Larry Himes doesn't know me at all." . . .

Detroit's Dan Petry has allowed 43 earned runs in his last 55 2/3 innings. That covers a span of 11 starts, but despite that 6.95 ERA, the Tigers are 10-1 in those games. Petry is 4-0, mainly because the Tigers have had six rallies of four or more runs in the first three innings. With Bill Madlock, Chet Lemon and Alan Trammell having big years, the Tigers are scoring runs so fast they may yet chase down the New York Yankees. "This team is better than the '84 championship team," Anderson said.Yankees Sore, as Usual

The Yankees are a fountain of bad feelings, most of them directed toward center fielder Rickey Henderson. He's playing with a sore left shoulder and sore legs, but teammates wouldn't forgive him this week when he didn't run out a pop fly and jogged to the wall to chase down a hit by Minnesota's Gene Larkin. After the game, Yankees Manager Lou Piniella held a team meeting in which he said that the next player who loafs will be pulled from the game. "What concerns me is here's a team playing for a pennant, and I see a little lackadaisical play," Piniella said. "And I don't like it." . . .

It took a while, but AL hitters apparently have discovered the secret to hitting Toronto's Mark Eichhorn. They're laying off the high strike, and the result is a huge slump. In 1986, Eichhorn walked 31 hitters in 157 innings (excluding intentional walks). In 1987, he has walked 29 in 79 innings. This week, he walked in the winning run in one game and walked three straight hitters in another . . .

Since the Texas Rangers let reliever Tom Henke go in the compensation pool two years ago, he has dominated them: 13 2/3 innings, four hits, no earned runs and 20 strikeouts. He has a victory and nine saves . . . Toronto is the eighth AL team for Juan Beniquez -- an all-time record . . .

How about those Dodgers? Ken Howell, their stopper in the bullpen, has been in 41 games and still doesn't have a save. And their farm system is so weak, they picked up former White Sox Julio Cruz to play at Albuquerque . . . Howard Johnson has the New York Mets' club record for homers by a third baseman, but he may be on his way to an even bigger record -- the first 30-30-30 player in history. He has 22 homers, 18 stolen bases and 17 errors . . .

Boston's release of Bill Buckner is the first indication the Red Sox are planning for the future. Still, it's a curious move because in the last three years only Jim Rice has more RBI (259 to 254) among Boston hitters. And Mike Greenwell, who'll replace Buckner in the batting order, had gone 47 at-bats without an RBI through Thursday. Do the Red Sox need bullpen help? Through Thursday, they had has many saves (nine) as shutouts (nine). They're 2-15 in games that are tied after seven innings . . .

Mike Heath of the Tigers has played every position except pitcher and second base. Jose Oquendo of the Cardinals has played every position except pitcher and catcher . . . As play began Thursday, the AL East-West series was tied 195-195. That night, the East had a 4-0 sweep. In the NL, the Mets are the only East team without a winning record against the West, and they're 25-25 through Thursday . . .

Angels Manager Gene Mauch on his team's injuries: "To get in our training room by six o'clock, you've got to make a reservation by 9 a.m." . . . The Chicago Cubs are on a pace to hit 213 homers, 31 more than their 1958 club record. They're especially tough on the Padres, finishing that series with a 26-5 edge in homers . . . Texas pitcher Bobby Witt has made 43 career starts without a complete game. That's the second-highest current streak. Philadelphia's Steve Bedrosian was moved to the bullpen after going 46 starts without a complete game in five seasons with Atlanta. Among active pitchers, Ed Lynch had the longest streak -- 49 starts before his first complete game . . .

No runs: Before Friday night's game, Houston's Nolan Ryan was 4-11 with a 3.17 ERA. The Astros had scored 61 runs in his 19 starts, 12 of those in one game. Not counting the 12-run game, they were averaging 2.72 runs per game for him. Milwaukee's Bill Wegman has had similar support. He has lost eight games as a starter, and in those eight the Brewers have scored seven runs.

Quote of a past week: "The ball is more alive than I've ever seen it. I mean, that ball jumps. Balls hit with a half-swing are going all the way to the warning track." -- Gene Mauch in 1979 when he managed the Minnesota Twins.