Mets quick to downplay slow start

Three games into the regular season, it already will be a head-to-head battle for the National League East cellar between the New York Mets and Washington Nationals this weekend.

But, hey, if the series goes to a Sunday rubber game, the Mets look to be sitting pretty in a Johan Santana vs. Livan Hernandez matchup.

Of course, that's not meant to be serious -- even if Thursday night's 3-1 loss, which dropped New York to 1-2 after a season-opening series against the Florida Marlins, underscored just how dire things could become for the Mets.

Manager Jerry Manuel had suggested it was vital for the Mets to get off to a quick start this season. On Thursday night, though, he maintained that three games is way too small a sample size to conclude the objective has been a failure.

"If we, in the course of 162, look somewhat at the first 20 games and see how we are and what we're doing, that will give us a better indicator of whether we're off and running or whatever," Manuel said.

Said third baseman David Wright: "It's three games. Ideally, you want to go out there and win series. We'll try to get them this weekend. Of course, everybody wants to get off to a good start. Record-wise, it's important for us. And obviously, so we don't have to answer these kinds of questions, it's important. It's three games down, a long way to go."

Facing Marlins left-hander Nate Robertson, Manuel opted for a righty-oriented lineup, giving shortstop Ruben Tejada his first major-league start over Alex Cora. Manuel placed Fernando Tatis at first base over Mike Jacobs. In search of a leadoff batter with Cora on the bench, he started Angel Pagan in center field over Gary Matthews Jr.

The result: The Mets, who actually didn't drive in a run with a hit in Wednesday's 7-6, 10-inning loss, scored once Thursday.

The lone production came on Jeff Francoeur's RBI double down the third-base line in the fourth inning, although even it comically was a flop. Third-base coach Chip Hale, who previously held the same role for three seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks, tumbled on his backside while waving Jason Bay around third base.

Desperately searching for positives?

Left-hander Jon Niese -- who collapsed on the mound the last time he pitched at Citi Field, when his hamstring tendon severed on Aug. 5 against the St. Louis Cardinals -- did look like a capable starter. He limited the Marlins to three runs on eight hits while striking out three and walking two in a 92-pitch effort spanning six innings.

Right-hander Ryota Igarashi, who had a shaky spring after being handed a two-year, $3 million contract, worked around a leadoff walk in his first major league inning, getting Hanley Ramirez to ground into a double play and retiring Jorge Cantu on a popup.

Fernando Nieve might actually be able to handle a late-inning role. After left-hander Hisanori Takahashi walked the leadoff batter in the ninth inning, Manuel summoned Nieve to face right-handed pinch-hitter Wes Helms. Nieve retired Helms on a fly ball to right field, then departed with left-handed Chris Coghlan up next.

Meanwhile, Jose Reyes is due to rejoin the Mets on Friday and be activated from the disabled list Saturday. Reyes played his final minor league game Thursday, going 0-for-4 with an RBI in a full game for Class A St. Lucie in its Florida State League opener in Jupiter, Fla.

Manuel noted that minus Reyes, as well as injured Carlos Beltran and Daniel Murphy, the Mets have "some challenges."

Said Manuel: "I think what we need is a couple of guys to be hot at the same time. It's difficult to go without that and try to continue to scratch runs. We just have to get a couple of guys going offensively and I think we'll be OK until, obviously, some of those guys come back."

Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.