SAN FRANCISCO - Even in defeat, Carlos Beltran counted Thursday's return as a personal victory. And in the big picture, that can only be viewed as a positive development for the Mets despite their 2-0 loss to the Giants at AT&T Park.
Beltran had faced nothing better than Class A pitching during his 14-game rehab assignment in Port St. Lucie. But he ripped a single off Tim Lincecum in his second at-bat, jumping on a 1-and-1 curveball, and finished the night 1-for-4 in his first major-league game since Oct. 4 of last season.
As Beltran stepped to the plate in the first inning, he said a small prayer and received applause from the scattered group of Mets fans in attendance. He ended the inning with a fly ball to centerfield, stranding Alex Cora at second base, then jogged back to the dugout with tears in his eyes.
"Even though I didn't cry," Beltran said, "it was emotional."
Perhaps most surprising was his attempt to steal second base in the fourth inning. Beltran is forced to play with a brace on his arthritic right knee, which limits his flexibility. But after watching Giants catcher Buster Posey flash two fingers for a changeup, Beltran took off - and was thrown out easily.
"When you drink too much coffee and too much sugar before the game," Beltran said, smiling, "it makes you do crazy things."
The outfield felt a little unfamiliar to Beltran as well. With the grass torn up by a recent Paul McCartney concert, it was treacherous to navigate, and Beltran did a few stutter-steps in making his first catch, a routine fly ball hit by Aubrey Huff to end the first inning.
But after a while, Beltran could stand out there and breathe again, and he just soaked in the experience in a way he never had before during his 13-year career.
After feeling his own baseball mortality - the result of his January knee surgery - and spending the first 3½ months trying to get back to the majors, Beltran viewed things a little differently Thursday night.
"I see it as a second chance," he said. "God has given me a second chance to play a game. Sometimes as a player, when you come to the ballpark, it's like the same thing over and over and over again. It becomes a routine. Sometimes, it's not that we take things for granted, but it's the same thing over and over and over.
"But when you're away from the game so long, now I appreciate everything, every part of the game. Just being out there, being able to catch a ball. It sounds crazy, but that's how grateful I am with just being able to be back. Now I feel like I don't want to waste any opportunity. I'm going to enjoy the game and have fun, and whatever happens happens."
Lincecum (10-4, 2.94), the reigning back-to-back Cy Young winner, allowed six hits in his first complete game this season. He walked one and struck out five for his first win in five career starts against the Mets.
R.A. Dickey (6-3) nearly matched zeroes with Lincecum but got tripped up in the second inning. With Buster Posey on third base after a single, groundout and wild pitch, Pablo Sandoval drilled a 2-and-2 fastball - not a knuckler - off the top of the high brick wall in rightfield.
That RBI double was the only real blemish on another great night for Dickey, who allowed five hits in seven innings and trimmed his ERA from 2.77 to 2.63.
"If I continue to pitch like I did tonight," Dickey said, "at the end of the day, we're going to win more than we lose. You've got to believe that."
The Giants added a run in the eighth. With one out, the bases loaded and Bobby Parnell on the mound, Posey grounded to Ike Davis, whose throw home was late. Travis Ishikawa then hit into a double play.
Elmer Dessens had given up a pair of singles to Lincecum and Aaron Rowand to start the inning, and after Freddy Sanchez's bunt resulted in an out at third base, Pedro Feliciano walked Huff on four pitches.
The Mets had few chances against Lincecum and he wriggled free of his biggest problem. After a leadoff walk to Jason Bay in the fifth, Josh Thole's line-drive single skimmed the back of a ducking Lincecum before shooting into centerfield. Ruben Tejada's fly ball got Bay to third base with one out, but Dickey put a dent in the rally by bunting Thole to second rather than taking a shot at swinging away for a run.
"That's a touchy thing," Dickey said of the bunt call. "That was put on by the manager. I just have to execute what I can control. But in retrospect, you'd like to take a shot there. It was tough."
As soon as Jose Reyes told trainer Ray Ramirez on Thursday that he still had discomfort, the team's medical staff instructed the shortstop to stay out of the lineup until he is pain-free in that area. Based on recent history, there's no way of telling when that might be.
If Reyes had been placed on the disabled list June 30 when he suffered the injury, it's likely that he could have been activated - and healthy - for the start of the second half.
Instead, the Mets had the switch-hitting Reyes come back in a limited capacity July 6 - batting only righthanded, even against righthanders - for a four-game stay that ended when he left Saturday's game after aggravating the injury.
Reyes had a little bit of déjà vu going on before Thursday night's game. Last season, he was sidelined with a misdiagnosed hamstring tendon injury while at AT&T Park, then had to be shut down permanently when he got to Los Angeles on the trip's next stop.
Reyes remembered that unpleasant episode as he talked Thursday with reporters, recalling the earlier injury and discussing his supposedly day-to-day status at the same locker. He hopes this condition is less serious, but until he returns to the lineup - perhaps Friday night - no one seems to know for sure.
"The first weeks, I had a lot of pain there," Reyes said. "It's getting better, but it's slow. The doctors, they don't want to take any chances. They want to be careful. They say when you're pain-free, you're going to be able to do anything on the field."