Starting pitcher John Maine was 5 2/3 innings into a quality start, having yielded three earned runs on three hits, when he saw manager Willie Randolph leave the dugout and approach him on the mound. With a lefty at the plate and his pitch count near 120, Maine figured his day was over and handed Randolph the ball when he reached the mound.
Problem was, Randolph hadn't come for the ball and didn't want it.
"I told him I believe in him, and I was trying to get him to win the game," Randolph said. "I said in the future to wait until I ask for the ball."
It would be easy to see Maine's preemptory surrender of the ball as indicative of the funk the Mets are in as they head home at the end of a rocky road trip that ended 3-6, finding them two games under .500 and knocking on the cellar door in the National League East.
But Maine's effort was among the highlights in a taut pitching duel with Colorado's Aaron Cook, who pitched all nine innings to take the rubber match from New York. Maine's symbolic gesture merely highlighted the conundrum of a team that can show its heart in hard-fought games on the field, but is all too capable of spiraling into defeat, taking itself out with mental lapses.
There were, again, opportunities the Mets let slip away. When they struck first with Endy Chavez singling to lead off the third and advancing to second on a sacrifice by Maine, they quickly took themselves out of a chance to extend the inning. Jose Reyes blooped a single into shallow center, plating Chavez, but he was promptly picked off first on a pitch he later explained he planned on stealing on. It was the second time he was picked off over the weekend.
An inning later, Maine gave up a one-out walk to Todd Helton before a potential inning-ending double-play grounder went between Reyes' legs at short for an error. Rockies rookie Seth Smith, in his second start since being called up from Triple-A on Saturday, got Colorado's first hit of the day when he launched his first big league home run into the right-field bullpen, giving the Rockies a 3-1 lead.
"That should have been a double play right there," Reyes said. "I have to make that play."
The missed opportunities were minimal on each side, but the Rockies were able to seize the gift that was handed to them, while the Mets struggled to find a toehold. They outhit the Rockies, four to three, combining to match the lowest total for a game in the history of Coors Field, but were unable to break through against Cook. In addition to their pair of third-inning singles, the Mets had base hits from Brian Schneider in the second and Carlos Beltran in the seventh.
"Cook threw the ball real well," Randolph said. "He had a real good sinker. We knew he was going to be tough. But we didn't really put any type of real, back-to-back arsenal together where we can get something."
Cook clearly deserved credit for stifling the Mets' bats, but whether the players are coming up short on self-motivation or whether they're simply trying too hard in an effort to take pressure of their beleaguered manager, the results are comforting no one but the opposition.
"You press to win every game," said Billy Wagner. "Sometimes pressing turns into fundamental mistakes and things like that. That might have something to do with it. But we're big boys. A lot of us have had a lot of time in this league and know that you go through spells like this, and we can be going through this the first couple months and then turn it around."
Part of the pressing -- or at least, the pressure -- involves an awareness that Randolph's job has been under increasing scrutiny as the road trip, which began with a promising 2-0 stint in the Bronx, disintegrated to a 1-6 swing through Atlanta and Denver.
Ultimately, the Mets couldn't take advantage of Maine's quality start. He gave up four runs (three earned) on three hits and four walks while striking out eight, but fell to 5-4, losing back-to-back starts for the first time this season.
"We've been in a little bit of a funk and we needed a win, but you can't place too much emphasis on it," Maine said. "I haven't heard one player talk about [Randolph]. We're not putting pressure on ourselves or anything like that. We'd like to be playing a little better, but we've been going out there and battling. We're hitting balls at people. Sooner or later, they're going to start falling. Hopefully, it's sooner."
The worst-case explanation for the woeful road trip is the half-empty theory that the mental lapses and uninspired play are the by-products of an unmotivated Mets clubhouse. But the best-case explanation is barely any better, the half-full hypothesis that the players are trying too hard to turn the tide for their manager.
Either way, it's been a bitter drink to swallow.
"The guys who are out there playing, we're not getting it done," Wagner said. "It's not Willie. Lord, I wish Willie could strap on a uniform. He's been on championship teams. He knows how to lead a championship team. We're not getting it done. It doesn't have anything to do with what Willie's doing."
Whatever it is that's been fueling their funk, the Mets will try to leave it on the road.
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.