PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Jose Valentin looks back on his solid 2006 season as a triumph of willpower over any kind of predictable outcome. Rarely used at second base during a 12-year-plus Major League career, Valentin nevertheless solved the Mets' need there without much of a hitch.

"They never thought it was going to be that way," Valentin said Tuesday of the Mets. "When they know you can't do that much, you can just go out and make plays, not try to be an All-Star, but do good. Everybody is surprised. I like it better that way."

By contrast, Valentin said if he had arrived as a touted replacement for Kaz Matsui, there would have been sky-high expectations.

"When you're not an underdog, you're a favorite, and that's when they want a lot of things from you," Valentin said. "You've got to do more than what they want, and it's a lot of pressure."

Valentin finds himself in the favorite's role this year, a returning starter in the Mets' season of high expectations. Valentin turned manager Willie Randolph from a skeptic into a believer by hitting .271 in 137 games last season, with 18 home runs and 62 RBIs.

Moreover, Valentin fielded his position with some distinction. He put together a 60-game errorless streak spanning three months at one stage. Randolph, a former second baseman, considers Valentin's fielding more of a surprise than his hitting, because he once had hit at least 25 homers in five straight seasons.

"He was really consistent in the field, despite the fact he hadn't played much second base," Randolph said. "He wasn't flashy, but he was fearless. He understood the importance of hanging in there and taking his licks."

Plus, Randolph loved Valentin's work ethic, saying he often would be the last man out of the weight room, and his ability to help keep young shortstop Jose Reyes focused.

Randolph initially gave Valentin a chance to split time at second base as he looked for a better long-term alternative, but Valentin's hot start ended that search.

Valentin, 37, said he took the approach that hard work and believing in a positive result would allow him to overcome a stark unfamiliarity at the position. He was right.

He does acknowledge leaning heavily on Randolph, once an All-Star, and Mets coach Sandy Alomar Sr., a superior second baseman in his day.

"I thought, 'If I don't get something out of those two, something is really wrong,'" Valentin said with a smile. "I [would have] to be pretty bad not to learn something from those two."

Alomar recalls hitting Valentin thousands of ground balls, sometimes early on game day, with no one else around, and working with him on positioning.

"Jose has a baseball awareness," Alomar said. "So that made it easier."

If Valentin's glove and arm won Randolph's heart, his bat won his head. Valentin developed into a bonus threat in an already potent lineup.

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His first big offensive outburst came on May 13, when he drove in four runs against the Brewers, including his initial home run of the season. He proceeded to drive in 15 runs in a 14-game span that ended May 30.

As it turns out, he was just warming up. On July 8 against the Marlins, Valentin exploded for seven RBIs, with four coming on the eighth grand slam of his career. Thirteen days later, he popped yet another grand slam, this one against the Astros.

For good measure, on July 26, Valentin hit a walk-off single against the Cubs in a 1-0 victory. But he was far from through. His pinch-hit RBI double in the eighth inning against the Astros on Sept. 1 broke a tie in an eventual Mets victory, and he had a two-homer game on Sept. 18 -- the day the Mets clinched the National League East title.

In the playoffs, a victory over the Dodgers and a loss to the Cardinals, Valentin drove in five runs in his last four games.

"I got to the point where I was feeling real good at the plate," he said. "Actually, I had a happy feeling all along about the way things were going. I'm always thinking positive, no matter what I do, and a lot of good things happen. Really, when you go up there wondering, afraid to make a mistake, that's when everything goes south. If you're afraid, you can't play this game."

Randolph also noticed Valentin made sure Reyes, the Mets' talented 23-year-old shortstop, never wavered on his concentration.

"Communication is one thing in baseball that you really need," Valentin said. "Mistakes are going to come, but if you're in the right spot at the right time, you make less of them. Communication helps you never get caught by surprise."

And Valentin believes communication in the Mets clubhouse -- the kind that breeds a special rapport -- gave him the supportive underpinning that helped him turn a Mets trouble spot into an asset.

"I've been on teams where guys are pointing fingers," Valentin said. "A lot of years I saw that. It didn't happen here. In fact, the guys understand that we all have the same name on the front of our jerseys. One day one guy may help us win, the next day it's another guy. But we're all doing it for one team. Our guys understand that and really appreciate and like each other."

Valentin said he maintains an exemplary work ethic as a sign of respect for all baseball has done for him.

"This game has been so good for me that I feel I have to give something back to the game," he said. "So this is my payoff. I respect this game and I take it seriously."