NEW YORK -- By the time Justin Turner realized what was happening, Angel Pagan was nearly home, all legs and arms and cartoon speed.
The havoc caused by Pagan occurred in the eighth inning Wednesday, but the desired result did not. Pagan's left leg kicked up at the last moment, whisking him over home plate and allowing Astros reliever Jose Valdez to apply the tag. And so it went. Runner out. Inning over. Loss imminent. Falling 4-3 to the Astros, the Mets dropped their ninth game in 10 tries and their seventh straight at Citi Field. They lost largely because two of last season's most pleasant surprises, Pagan and R.A. Dickey, both continued to struggle, sending them reeling headfirst to another night of self-reflection.
"We can't just keep telling ourselves we're a better team than this," Dickey said. "We may not be. And we've got to be honest about that."
Pagan, for his part, was honest about his gamble. Well aware of his .167 average through the season's first 18 games, the center fielder reached base with a walk to lead off the eighth inning and became determined to contribute in any way he could. Flying from first to third on a hit-and-run with Daniel Murphy, Pagan quickly saw his chance: a curveball to Turner that kicked off catcher J.R. Towles' glove and squirted toward the grassy area to the right of home plate. Pagan charged. Valdez whirled. Leg up, glove down, out recorded.
"I was hoping that Valdez was going to be at the plate, and I just gave him a good throw," Towles said.
Muttering and shaking his head as he walked back to the dugout, Pagan later reviewed tape of the play and acknowledged that he was out. Yet his manager called it a risk worth taking.
"We've been sitting back and waiting for [stuff] to happen for a long time, and nothing's happened," Terry Collins said.
Aggressiveness around here is rarely discouraged. Yet the proper execution has not yet arrived for the Mets, who stained other aspects of Wednesday's loss with fundamental flaws. Though they put the leadoff man on base five times, they plated that runner only once. Jose Reyes reached base to lead off the ninth against closer Brandon Lyon, for example, but was doubled off the bag on Josh Thole's bunt popup -- a mental mistake that Reyes later admitted he shouldn't have made.
Had he slid back safely and eventually scored the tying run, Reyes would have been a human highlight reel instead of a scapegoat, recording four singles and two stolen bases up to that point in the game. Had Pagan slid safely under Valdez's tag, he would -- in Turner's words -- "have been a hero." Had the Mets won, Daniel Murphy's game-tying two-run homer in the sixth would have loomed so much larger than it did.
As it was, the Astros took a 4-3 lead on Hunter Pence's solo homer to lead off the eighth against Dickey. And largely because of that inexplicable four-out sequence to end the eighth and open the ninth, the Mets never recovered.
"Maybe we're trying too hard -- I don't know," Thole said. "It's definitely not lack of effort, I'll tell you that much."
"Out of all the problems that we have, I would say that one of them is not effort," Dickey said. "Guys are wanting to make plays because we're in a hole and we want to get out of it."
Instead, however, the Mets find themselves mired in their deepest hole of the season -- 6 1/2 games back from first place, owners of a .278 winning percentage and the worst overall record in the Major Leagues.
Before this year, many around the team pointed to healthy seasons for Reyes and Carlos Beltran as the most important elements to a contending season. Next on the list were repeat campaigns from the surprise stories of last season, Dickey and Pagan.
So far, neither man has obliged. Though pitching adequately, Dickey has taken a loss in three straight starts. Pagan, meanwhile, has spent most of April with a batting average below .200.
For the Mets to begin winning, Dickey said, he and Pagan and so many others must begin to realize and accept their flaws. Collectively, they must confront the mirror, admit that they cannot pitch like the Phillies or hit like the Rockies, and hash out a battle plan to overcome those shortcomings.
Then they must execute.
"I don't think there's any crazy formula that we don't know of to win," third baseman David Wright said.
It's just a matter of keeping that leg down. Or staying a bit closer to first. Or throwing one or two more quality knuckleballs.
As Dickey stood by his locker late Wednesday night detailing that plan, Collins approached, shrugged his way through a group of reporters and patted Dickey on the back.
"Nice going," the manager said, before shuffling off to deliver quiet messages of encouragement to several other Mets. Most of them need it now more than ever.
"It's disappointing," Thole said. "You try not to hang your head, but it is."