NEW YORK -- Historically, when Jose Reyes reaches base to lead off an inning, the Mets tend to score. His speed does most of the work. His reputation and unnerving effect on pitchers does the rest.
Lately, however, that has not been the case, the latest example coming in Tuesday's 3-2 Mets loss to the Nationals at Citi Field. Reyes walked to lead off the bottom of the seventh but he did not advance, dampening his team's most promising threat against a stout Nationals bullpen.
"I'll be the first guy to stand up and say I've emphasized the fact that he's got to stay healthy," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "It's so important for us, and for him, just to keep him in the lineup."
Though Reyes did feel fully healthy within days of returning from the disabled list last month, he has since experienced some tension in the left hamstring that has bothered him all season. Reyes feels well enough to play -- his 3-for-4 night with a walk was evidence enough of that -- but not quite well enough to be himself on the bases.
So after Ryan Zimmerman gave the Nats their first lead Tuesday with his two-out single against Bobby Parnell in the seventh, a Mets opportunity fizzled in the bottom of the inning. Reliever Craig Stammen walked Reyes, then Ruben Tejada popped up a bunt attempt and Lucas Duda popped out to foul territory -- both on the first pitch. Moments later, David Wright struck out with Reyes still standing on first.
"There's no question, if Jose Reyes is on first base, especially the next guy, they've got to give him a chance to run," Collins said. "They've got to let him take his chance, no doubt, any time he gets on."
Even when given a chance to run recently, however, Reyes rarely has taken it. Tuesday was just the latest in a somewhat troubling trend for a player whose work on the basepaths used to define his game. Last week against the Braves, Reyes singled to lead off the ninth in a one-run game but never moved from that spot; the Mets lost with him still standing on first.
Reyes has not attempted a steal since August, one day after returning from his second DL stint with a strained left hamstring. He attempted three steals in eight August games, and was successful on all three. He attempted two steals in 15 July games, and was successful on both.
Compare that to 2005-08, when Reyes attempted a total of 326 steals in 633 games -- roughly one attempt every two nights -- and was successful on 79 percent of them. His success ratio this season is almost identical to what it was then, and yet Reyes has displayed a noticeable hesitation to stray too far from first, despite reaching base more often than he has before in his career. With three singles and a walk on Tuesday, the shortstop bumped his average back up to .333, reclaiming the National League batting lead from Milwaukee's Ryan Braun.
Both he and Collins chalked his hesitation up to a leg that is not quite 100 percent.
"When I feel like I can steal, I'm going to do it because that's a big part of my game," Reyes said. "Every time I get on base -- believe me, because I get on base a lot -- I want to steal. And when I steal, that means we're going to score some runs for this team, so I want to do it."
On this night, it certainly might have helped; the Nats took the lead for good after Stammen and Ian Desmond touched Dale Thayer for back-to-back singles with one out in the seventh. A fielder's choice from Rick Ankiel advanced Stammen to third, allowing him to score easily on Zimmerman's single to left.
Held scoreless over the first five innings, the Nats finally cracked Mets starter Dillon Gee for two runs on RBI doubles from Ankiel and Michael Morse in the sixth. Gee could not escape the inning, allowing a total of two runs on six hits and two walks and striking out five.
It was similar to the performance of Nats starter Chien-Ming Wang, who held the Mets to two runs -- one on Duda's fifth-inning single, the other on an error -- in five innings. Wang struck out four and did not walk a batter.
"I thought Chien-Ming pitched a good ballgame," Nats manager Davey Johnson said. "I know he gave up a bunch of hits. He kept us in the ballgame."
The difference, for both teams, was the relief. Whereas Thayer and Parnell struggled for the Mets, six different Nationals relievers -- including closer Drew Storen, who saved his second game in two nights -- submitted scoreless work for Washington.
Perhaps Reyes, with a little more aggression, could have made a difference in all that. Perhaps not. Comfort is a significant part of the art of basestealing; forcing the issue rarely results in success.
"I just came back from a hamstring injury, so it's not the same," Reyes said. "Earlier this season, I was healthy. So it's not the same now because I just came off the disabled list. I don't want to blow off my leg running like crazy out there. If I feel good, I'll run like crazy. But right now, my legs aren't where they need to be."