SAN DIEGO -- The throw arrived in plenty of time. Mets catcher Josh Thole caught it, braced himself and attempted to absorb the blow. He could not.
Lowering his shoulder and smashing into Thole, Carlos Quentin dislodged the ball and stumbled across home plate with the most important run of Friday's 3-1 loss to the Padres, spoiling R.A. Dickey's stellar effort at Petco Park.
"It's frustrating because the play at the plate, that's the game," Thole said. "That's the ballgame."
Commonly referred to as a game of inches, baseball in this example was one of force and acceleration and fractions of a second. With Quentin on first base in a tie game in the seventh, Yonder Alonso sent a fly ball to right-center field, where Scott Hairston deflected it in a fruitless, tumbling attempt to make a play on the fly. That allowed Quentin to race all the way around the bases, turning for home just as second baseman Ronny Cedeno caught Andres Torres' relay from the outfield.
Standing in the shallow outfield himself, Cedeno gunned a strong throw home, allowing Thole to catch it with time to spare. But the catcher appeared to shy away from Quentin, fumbling with his free, right hand in an effort to further support the ball in his glove -- a women's softball mitt that he uses only to catch Dickey. As Thole was readjusting, Quentin lowered his shoulder and dislodged the ball.
"I knew the play was going to be tight, and all of a sudden he had the ball really early," Quentin said. "At that point, you do what you can to try to draw the ball loose. It came out. Some other days it might not have."
And some other days, the next batter, John Baker, might not have exacerbated the issue by singling Alonso home with an insurance run.
"It's an unfortunate break," said Mets bench coach Bob Geren, a catcher throughout his playing career. "You're taught to try to knock the ball loose as a runner. They both did exactly what they're supposed to do. The ball just popped out."
With it went the Mets' best chance at victory, their opportunity to convert Dickey's strong start into a Major League-leading 15th victory.
Erasing thoughts of a second straight offensive outburst against a left-handed pitcher, the Mets plated their only run off Clayton Richard when David Wright walked to lead off the fourth inning, moved to second on Hairston's single and scored on Cedeno's base hit. The Padres starter pitched seven innings, departing after giving up Justin Turner's pinch-hit single to lead off the eighth.
For a time, it seemed as if that early run might be enough, with Dickey recording 13 outs before allowing a hit of his own. But in the sixth, the knuckleballer walked leadoff man Everth Cabrera, who moved to second base on a sacrifice bunt, stole third and scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly.
"It stings a little bit because we should have won that game, not because of any groove that I was in," Dickey said. "We've got to win games like that to compete and have a shot at working our way back into this thing. I didn't execute a pitch or two. We had some funny plays, too. But regardless, that's a game that I think everybody in here thought we should have won."
The Mets put their first two runners on base in the eighth inning, on consecutive singles from Turner and Ruben Tejada. But Torres and Wright struck out, before Jordany Valdespin grounded out to end the inning. Frequently linked to the Mets in trade rumors last month, Padres closer Huston Street recorded the final four outs for the save.
It was a quiet ending to a quiet game, save for one explosive moment in the middle -- hardly Thole's first of the season. The catcher suffered a concussion absorbing a similar blow at the plate from Phillies infielder Ty Wigginton on May 7, holding onto the ball but spending nearly a month on the disabled list as a result.
Thoughts of that day were far from Thole's mind, the catcher said, when Quentin came barreling around third base in the seventh.
"Getting hit isn't easy, but I've got to make that play," Thole said. "It's how you draw it up."