Mets can win for losing as Reyes returns

NEW YORK -- Mets manager Jerry Manuel could not wait to get one of his surgically repaired players back on the field.

The other's return? He wasn't so eager, as evidenced by the skipper's stalling until Game 5 of the season before starting left-hander Oliver Perez.

Still, both Jose Reyes and Perez are critical cogs if the Mets are to challenge in the National League East. And both had slow starts in their season debuts Saturday afternoon as the Mets lost 4-3 to the Washington Nationals at Citi Field.

Reyes' rustiness, of course, could be expected. And should soon be behind him.

The spark plug went 1-for-4, was hit by a pitch in the left forearm and committed an error at shortstop in his first game action since May 20, 2009, at Dodger Stadium. Reyes was sidelined for the final four months of last season by right leg woes that required surgery. Fully recovered, he then was idle for three weeks in spring training by a hyperactive thyroid.

"That's a long time," Reyes said. "The first game is going to be a little rough. Hopefully I can do a better job tomorrow."

Perez -- whom Manuel had moved to No. 5 in the rotation, delaying the inevitable nearly as long as possible -- surrendered four runs on four hits and four walks while striking out six in a 101-pitch effort over 5 2/3 innings. Now in the second season of an onerous and ill-advised three-year, $36 million deal, Perez had not appeared in a game since before Sept. 1 surgery to clean out his right knee.

The day was about the beloved Reyes, anyway.

Seeing Reyes on the field in a game made it a semi-rewarding day, despite the fact that Reyes was stranded on third base in the ninth when left fielder Willie Harris made a game-saving dive on a sinking liner by Rod Barajas that left the bases loaded.

"The whole game I was a little anxious, a little shaky in the field," Reyes said. "I expected that to come because I didn't play in almost a year. Hopefully tomorrow I'll be a little more relaxed."

Said Manuel: "There was a lot of nervous energy with him today. We know Jose. He'll settle in fine."

Reyes was so eager to play in Saturday's matinee, he was up before sunrise.

"Early, bro. Like 8:20 I was here," Reyes said. "I got up like at 6 at my house -- watching my watch every 15 minutes. I couldn't wait to get to the ballpark. I'm glad it's over with."

Upon taking his position at shortstop in a regular-season game for the first time in 326 days, Reyes kissed a baseball before making a warm-up toss to first baseman Fernando Tatis.

As could have been expected given the limited pitching he saw in Florida before being activated from the disabled list, Reyes was rusty and anxious in his season debut. He tapped out to first base and popped out to shortstop on a combined three pitches in his first two at-bats. After getting plunked on the forearm with a pitch from Nationals starter John Lannan in his third plate appearance, Reyes then became the second of Yankees castoff Tyler Clippard's seven strikeout victims. Reyes also had an eye-level line drive glance off his glove in the sixth inning and was charged with an error.

The Mets, who dropped to 2-3, made career days for multiple Nationals. In addition to Clippard's career-high strikeout total, Willy Taveras had a pair of two-RBI hits off Perez. Taveras' previous best had been two RBIs.

That wasn't the only disappointment for the Mets. After they loaded the bases with none out in the third inning, and with the score tied at 2, Jeff Francoeur sent a tapper directly in front of home plate. Catcher Pudge Rodriguez retrieved the baseball, stepped on home and then threw to Adam Dunn at first base for a double play. Gary Matthews Jr. followed with a groundout and the Mets wasted the bases-loaded opportunity.

The Mets, who were 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position, were ranked 29th in the majors the past two seasons in bases-loaded average -- hitting .220 in 2009 and .216 in 2008.

At least getting Reyes on the field was a positive for the Mets. And he became sharper as the game progressed.

On the Nationals' final out, Reyes barehanded a chopper off Nyjer Morgan's bat and threw in time to first base to retire the speedster. Reyes then led off the bottom half of the inning with a line single to center field -- his first hit since his single off Dodgers reliever Brent Leach on May 19, 2009, the day before Reyes departed after the third inning in Los Angeles with a right hamstring tendon issue that prevented him from reappearing the rest of the season.

"That made me feel better for tomorrow," Reyes said about the ninth-inning plays.

Said Manuel: "If you have not been accustomed to it for a period of time, obviously you won't be quite in step with everybody else. There's no problem with Jose. He'll get into the flow of the game, get into the rhythm, just like everybody else.

" I think you could begin to see the adjustments even as that game progressed. That's just how athletic he is. To catch the one ball on the run with a bare hand and throw him out, lead off the ninth with a base hit after having the at-bats that he had, he's athletic enough to catch up with the speed [of the game].

"And then the game has to catch up with him."

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