His big day gradually turning better, Jose Reyes started the bottom of the ninth inning by stroking a single to right-centerfield. And a year ago, Jerry Manuel's strategy would've been simple:

1) Have Reyes steal second base.

2) Have Alex Cora bunt Reyes over to third.

3) Give David Wright and possibly Jason Bay a chance to tie the score with a mere sacrifice fly off Washington closer Matt Capps.

Reyes never tried to swipe second, however. And the prodigal leadoff hitter ended the game at third base when Mets-killer Willie Harris dived to catch Rod Barajas' bullet to leftfield, preserving Washington's 4-3 victory.

"I've got to let Jose get back into the rhythm of the game, and the speed of this game," Manuel said afterward. "That's probably the reason I didn't want to go ahead and chance that. But once he's playing, he'll take that base."

You might as well apply such wisdom and patience to the entire Mets team. Virtually everyone, with Reyes as the poster boy, needs time to regain solid footing.

In his first game since last May 20, Reyes went 1-for-4, got hit by a pitch and committed an error. He received a huge, deserved standing ovation from the Citi Field crowd before his first at-bat. He preceded his ninth-inning hit with a nifty play in the top of the inning, barehanding Nyjer Morgan's soft shot up the middle and firing it to first for the out.

"I didn't play in such a long time," Reyes said. "It was a little faster. I was a little anxious. I tried to do too much, for sure."

He added: "Hopefully, I can come to the ballpark more comfortable tomorrow."

The Mets, shaken by 2009, are trying to get more comfortable in their own skin. Yes, they lost to the lowly Nationals, but their bullpen pitched very well again. Maybe Ryota Igarashi eventually can be the eighth-inning guy and let Jenrry Mejia develop in the minor leagues?

The team displayed some late fight, even as it failed to tie the score. And given the low bar that is set for Oliver Perez, it did not rank as an outright failure for the erratic lefthander in his first start of 2010.

Take a step back from Reyes' return and look at the bigger picture here. Perez and Luis Castillo, Omar Minaya's two greatest mistakes as the Mets' general manager, are signed through 2011, as are assets Reyes and Carlos Beltran, who could return in May. Top prospects Ike Davis and Fernando Martinez are honing their craft in the minor leagues and Jon Niese is getting his first full-season opportunity in the majors.

Can the Mets rebound from their 70-92 season with a playoff spot? Sure. They play in the National League. But it's not a safe bet.

The better hope, as fans, is that the key Mets players rediscover their grooves, ownership spends money on the seventh overall draft pick in June and Minaya doesn't make any shortsighted moves in July.

The Mets haven't earned your patience, Mets fans. Yet if you're just too darn loyal to turn elsewhere, you're going to have to be patient.

As Reyes conceded, the game felt a bit fast for him yesterday. "He's athletic enough to catch up to the speed," Manuel said. "Then the game has to catch up to him."

This organization has to catch up to its own mistakes. Like Reyes, the more conservative route is optimal. Even if it'll understandably frustrate folks right now.