NEW YORK -- The ball was a bit more softly hit than most, but not by much. When Justin Turner fielded it, the batter, Bryan Petersen, was barely a third of the way down the first-base line.
In those critical seconds, Turner's choices became simple: either flip the ball to Jose Reyes to start an inning-ending double play, or fire home for the forceout. Manager Terry Collins wouldn't have faulted either one.
Turner did neither.
The resulting two-base error plated two runs, sending the Mets to a 4-3 loss to the Marlins -- their fourth consecutive defeat and their third by exasperating means. For the second straight night, the Mets fell moments after a key defensive lapse changed the course of an inning.
"I messed up," Turner said. "I made a mistake."
The weight of consequence came later; in the immediate aftermath of the loss, Turner and Collins considered only the execution. Clinging to a one-run lead in the top of the ninth, Mets closer Jason Isringhausen -- who served up Mike Stanton's game-winning grand slam in the 10th inning of Monday's game -- loaded the bases on a walk, a single and a one-out hit batsman. That brought up Petersen, a speedy pinch-hitter who hit a bouncer to the right side of the infield.
As soon as Turner gloved it, Marlins catcher John Buck halted on his way from first base to second, changing Turner's thought process. Though Turner knew the proper play was to throw either to second base or home, he settled upon trying to tag Buck before throwing to first for the double play. But when Buck stopped, he threw to first base for the sure out instead.
Even that went awry. Turner's throw sailed well wide of the bag, allowing two runs to score and dropping the Mets to their third straight loss following a late comeback.
"My first instinct was to try to tag Buck and get the double play that way, and he did an outstanding job of baserunning by not running into the force," Turner said. "And then obviously after that, the wheels kind of fell off with the throw."
Buck, who precipitated the play with his baserunning, called it his "Jedi mind trick."
"It was a play that's not normal," Buck said. "I remember him looking at me. It was like he looked me right in the eye and then he decided to throw it."
Whatever the reasoning, the play was the undoing of the Mets, who took a late lead on Lucas Duda's sacrifice fly in the sixth. Trailing twice in the game, the Mets tied things first on Reyes' solo home run in the third inning, then again on David Wright's RBI groundout in the fifth.
Those runs came only after the Marlins touched Mets starter Chris Capuano for two of their own, both on solo home runs by Omar Infante. Although Capuano allowed just two other hits, outpitching Marlins rookie Brad Hand in the process, the Mets descended into a close game in the ninth inning for a third consecutive day.
They had seen this script. After Scott Hairston hit a game-tying homer with two outs in the ninth inning Sunday against the Nationals, Bobby Parnell gave up a walk-off single in the bottom of the inning. A day later, after the Mets tied things with two outs in the ninth on a two-run homer from Duda, Isringhausen -- following a defensive lapse by first baseman Daniel Murphy -- served up Stanton's game-winning slam.
Such was the context of the ninth inning Tuesday, which spawned from Isringhausen's troubles and ended relatively quietly, with Marlins closer Leo Nunez working around a leadoff walk issued by lefty Randy Choate to shut down the Mets.
"It's frustrating," Capuano said. "These Marlins are a scrappy team and they just kept coming at us. I think we're a little frustrated, but I think we're that type of team too."
"I don't blame anyone but myself," Isringhausen said. "The leadoff guy shouldn't have gotten on, and I shouldn't have hit Buck. I take the blame, but it's baseball. You can't be perfect every time."
Lately, the Mets have not been perfect any time. Given plenty of rope in the National League Wild Card race thanks to Atlanta's recent struggles, New York has dropped four straight games at a most inopportune juncture. Rather than move within striking distance of the Braves prior to this weekend's showdown at Citi Field, they are instead in danger of falling out of contention entirely.
It has been a struggle for a team trying to strike a balance between completing its daily fundamental work and guarding against midseason fatigue. It has been a battle for a team simultaneously trying to win and trying to teach.
For example: immediately following Tuesday's loss, Collins asked Turner for his thought process on the game-changing play.
"When I heard his response, it was absolutely what you wanted to hear," Collins said. "It just didn't work."