NEW YORK -- This was what Terry Collins had waited for, hoped for, pined for since his last big league managerial job with the Angels in 1999. He wanted another chance to influence a game. He wanted another chance to stand on the first-base line during pregame introductions, then to sit in the home dugout and call the shots.
With responsibility, Collins knows, comes credit. But with responsibility, also, comes blame. Collins earned a little of both in the Mets' 6-2 loss to the Nationals on Friday, leaving his fingerprints all over the home opener at Citi Field -- for better and for worse.
"I'm a long way from being frustrated," Collins said.
The manager's most intriguing decision came in the seventh, down a run, after Brad Emaus and Josh Thole both walked to open the inning. Rather than proceed with Daniel Murphy, who had stepped into the on-deck circle as a potential pinch-hitter, Collins instead made the textbook baseball play: He asked Chin-lung Hu to bunt. The resulting sacrifice put two men in scoring position, but gave the Nationals a free out.
Moments later, the Mets trudged back out to the field still down a run, after Jose Reyes struck out and Angel Pagan grounded back to the pitcher to squelch the rally.
"I was trying to put the ball in play there, no matter how," Reyes said. "I had an opportunity there to tie the game, at least, but I wasn't able to come through."
To blame Collins for that outcome, of course, would be unfair -- there's no telling how the inning might have unfolded had Murphy hit instead of Hu, just as there's no telling how the rest of the game might have progressed had R.A. Dickey not suffered a split nail on his index finger.
And on this night, at least, Collins won more of the decisions than he lost.
With Dickey facing trouble in the fourth inning, for example, Collins pulled in the infield, helping his starter escape from the jam. With the Mets down two runs in the fifth, he lifted Dickey for pinch-hitter Lucas Duda, who doubled down the line to pull them back within one.
The final margin may have been 6-2 thanks to Ivan Rodriguez's two-run single in the eighth, but the game -- in large part due to Collins' machinations -- was much closer than that score might indicate.
It became a battle of the bullpens in large part because of Dickey, who split his nail delivering a knuckleball to Ryan Zimmerman in the first. Back in the dugout after the inning, Dickey filed the nail down much more than usual, preventing him from digging it into the ball.
The result was more spin on his knuckleballs, which are at their best when they have no rotation whatsoever. The other result was a career-high five walks, due in large part to what Dickey referred to as "stubbornness."
"Yes, my nail was broken, but they didn't know that," Dickey said, explaining that he resisted the urge to throw fewer knuckleballs after the injury. "I was still trying to figure out a way to put the right formula together to get us some zeroes."
Dickey was trying to do, in short, precisely what Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann did. Without his best stuff, Zimmermann still held the Mets off the scoreboard with the exception of Duda's double and Ike Davis' sacrifice fly in 5 1/3 innings.
"I was battling pretty much all day and they were fouling off a lot of pitches," Zimmermann said. "I got my pitch count up pretty high. But I had to leave in the sixth there and hand it over to the bullpen, who did an awesome job."
That the Mets eventually lost was not the fault of Dickey, nor of Collins, nor even of Reyes, but instead a collective inability to execute. The Mets were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position, many of those at-bats coming with their best players at the plate. Just as David Wright struck out against Roy Halladay with the bases loaded and one out Thursday, Reyes stunted a rally in the seventh inning Friday against reliever Tyler Clippard. But there were also critical strikeouts from Davis and Pagan.
"That's one of the things that has haunted us here in the last few days," Collins said. "We've had some chances to score some easy runs, and we haven't."
Now the Mets are 3-4, under .500 for the first time since Opening Day. It's not ideal. But it's also not as if they have forgotten the formula for success.
They know now that they have a manager willing to take risks for the team. All the Mets have to do is turn those directives into results.
"We had opportunities to win, and we know tangibly what we need to do," Dickey said. "We just need to execute better."