- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- It would be nice to report that sold-out Citi Field was absolutely electric when the New York Mets finally returned for their home opener, that die-hard fans tried to buck up beleaguered owner Fred Wilpon when he went striding across the field during batting practice by shouting, "We're with you, Fred!" or that the Mets came through in the clutch again and again Friday.
But how do you go nuts for a team whose slogan should be, "Maybe We Won't Be As Bad As You Think"?
The first giveaway that the weather (battleship gray skies) might match the mood (half-hearted negativity) at Citi Field came when the crowd booed the Mets' massage therapist and visiting clubhouse attendant during full-team introductions. Was it gratuitous? Sure. The second bad omen came when 88-year-old team broadcaster Ralph Kiner threw out the ceremonial first pitch and then jokingly doubled over and grabbed his throwing shoulder as if he hurt himself.
The easy joke is that Kiner had better control than Mets starter R.A. Dickey, who walked five (matching his career-high) and coughed up a two-strike, two-run single in the second to Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann to give Washington an early 2-0 lead.
But Dickey at least had an excuse, even if he wouldn't take it: He split a fingernail on his pitching hand while facing Ryan Zimmerman in the first inning, and still struck him out on the next pitch. The rest of the Mets were neither especially sharp nor especially clutch during their 6-2 loss to the Nationals, which extended the Mets' losing streak to three.
The natural segue right about here is to add that it's early -- or, as first-year Mets manager Terry Collins put it, pulling a hand down his face, "Only Game 8 or 7 or 6 or whatever the hell it is."
By then, even Collins was not the same amped-up man who told reporters beforehand that he got to the ballpark "at 8 o'clock this morning" for the 4 p.m. start "and my ass has been on fire for 4½ hours." After the game, Collins lamented how the Mets can't expect to win often when "we walked too many and we struck out too much."
That "hope springs eternal stuff" might work in other outposts around the major leagues on Opening Day, but the win-one, lose-some pattern the Mets have already fallen into is pretty much what everyone expected the Mets to be. And nothing that happened in their home opener changed the thinking that they'll do well to finish .500.
The Mets have a chance when they get better starting pitching than Dickey was able to give them after telling catcher Josh Thole that, even if the split fingernail made throwing his knuckleball difficult, he wanted to go down with his best pitch. Dickey battled as best he could, and left after the fifth inning with the Mets trailing only 3-2. What killed them more was they went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
Of all the failed at-bats, none was as galling as Jose Reyes' ability to even just put the ball in play after the Mets got their first two hitters on in the top of the seventh, and then Collins had pinch-hitter Chin-lung Hu sacrifice them to second and third. Reyes -- who patiently worked the count to 3-and-2 to lead off the game -- had the sort impetuous, free-swinging at-bat that must've had the Mets' new front office heaving copies of "Moneyball" at the wall. Reyes swung from the heels on his first strike and struck out on a change-up that fooled him badly. The Mets never really had a chance of coming back after that.
"I kinda got mad when I struck out. ... I couldn't believe it," Reyes said.
Asked what he was hoping for there after calling for the sac bunt, Collins dryly said, "A ground ball to second base."
That's all the Mets needed in that situation. They didn't get it. "It happens," Reyes sighed.
The memory of their encouraging 3-1 season start dimmed just a little more.
So excuse the Mets fans if they weren't unconditionally besotted with the return of their team Friday just because it was the home opener. Loving this team is going to require carefully calibrating one's brain and enjoying the moral victories, the little things, the goofy asides like hooting "Duuude" when Lucas Duda delivers something like the RBI double he had Friday. This team will require finding your amusement and silver linings where you can.
The Mets aren't going to beat up on anybody consistently. Not when they trot out a staff ace-by-default (Mike Pelfrey) who's already 0-2, a right fielder (Carlos Beltran) whose chronic knee condition limits his ability to run, and a closer (Francisco Rodriguez) who could reach a closing-out games limit because of the expensive contract clause he could trigger. And when Collins looks down his bench for a pinch-hitter to break a game open, his options are the likes of Scott Hairston -- a career .244 hitter.
Friday, even something as terrific as the sight of Reyes flashing to his left and diving to snag a sharply hit grounder by Rick Ankiel with the bases loaded, then scrambling to his feet to pull off a rousing 6-6-3 double play that bailed out Dickey in the fifth comes with some ballast now. That reminder of how stunning Reyes can be was almost immediately overtaken by another thought: It'll be sad to see the most exciting player on the Mets go when they trade him away by midseason because Reyes is in a contract year.
The Mets might as well be called the New York Madoffs now when it comes to finances.
But -- repeat after me -- maybe they won't be as bad as you think.
Sorry, but the atmosphere at the Mets' home opener wasn't exactly electric.