"I'm hoping it's a bump," Manuel said, "and not a hill."
It's not as if the Mets never had opportunities. They had baserunners in nearly every inning, but mental mistakes and an inability to hit with runners in scoring position conspired to hold them in check.
Their first real threat came in the third inning, when catcher Robinson Cancel reached on a bunt single, then moved to second on Jose Reyes' walk. But with two outs and the team's primary run producer, David Wright, at the plate, Cancel inexplicably took off for third, canceling out any chance the Mets may have had to score.
Cancel called it a "mistake," not a missed sign. Manuel called it worse.
"He was brain-dead or something was wrong with him right there," Manuel said. "He's a better player than that."
The Mets loaded the bases in both the fourth and fifth innings, but could not convert on either occasion. They could not solve soouthpaw Randy Wolf, nor could they puncture a flawless bullpen. And so they instead left town flush with the thoughts of everything they could have done but didn't.
They also left town with an ailing Billy Wagner and a sore John Maine, two pitchers whose injuries have forced the Mets to rely on young players for production. But that excuse didn't apply Sunday, when the bullpen did just fine and Oliver Perez pitched on regular rest. That's a formula for success. Usually.
Perez faltered when he served up a home run to Ty Wigginton in the second, and again when he allowed four consecutive hits to create three runs in the fourth. He also faced adversity when Nick Evans -- a natural infielder -- stumbled while tracking Darin Erstad's single in the fourth, allowing the rally to continue.
"I got a bad read," Evans said. "It's definitely a ball I should have caught."
But those are sacrifices that the Mets are currently making. Manuel admitted after the game that given the current state of his team, he's willing to sacrifice defense for offense. Evans can provide offense. Daniel Murphy can provide offense. And Fernando Tatis can provide offense. Which is why Manuel is willing to play those three infielders at the corner outfield positions, instead of giving time to defensive specialist Endy Chavez.
It's not quite desperation, because the Mets aren't desperate. But it is a conscious assessment that this team cannot succeed without an offensive spark.
"We're either going to get one or the other," Manuel said of his team's offense and defense. "And right now, with the way we're leaving men on base, we've got to try to do what we can to get a lead, and then protect it later."
That philosophy even directly affected Perez, who left after six innings and 77 pitches so that the Mets could use a pinch-hitter. Perez gave up the four runs in all, striking out three and walking none while pitching "careful" given Minute Maid Park's hitter-friendly dimensions.
But on this afternoon, no pitcher had significant problems with the local architecture. The Mets pitched fine -- and that included rookie Eddie Kunz, who allowed one hit and no runs in his Major League debut. But the Astros pitched better, and "fine" was no consolation.
And so the Mets, assembled quite differently than the team that departed for Miami seven days ago, seemed to regress on their six-game road trip. They lost five of the games, fell from first place to third and provided no evidence that things are apt to change.
Manuel chided the offense, though no member of this club can proceed without blame. Which, perhaps, is a good thing, because every member knows what must happen next.
"We've got to get it going," Wright said. "We don't want to be having to scoreboard-watch come September. Now's the time we've got to push."