Valentin starts the celebration early

Valentin starts the celebration early

NEW YORK -- Jose Valentin was being interviewed in the Mets clubhouse by a swarm of print, radio and television reporters following the 4-0 clincher on Monday night when Cliff Floyd walked by and shouted, "That's the best No. 8 hitter in all of baseball, right there, baby!"

Floyd's statement may be statistically debatable, but against the Marlins, Valentin validated his worth to the team.

After the Mets struggled to clinch the NL East title over the weekend against the Pirates, Valentin gave the team a boost with a two-homer performance and sent the 46,729 in attendance at Shea Stadium into pandemonium.

And it finally allowed the Mets to celebrate.

"That was a huge shot in the arm for us," said David Wright. "He's been like that for us all season, and he came through again for us. That's an idea what this team brings to the table. Every guy up and down this lineup contributes and he's had big hits for us all season."

In the third inning, with Shawn Green on first, Valentin, batting from the left-hand side, blasted his first home run 395 feet to right on a 1-0 pitch off Marlins starter Brian Moehler. It was the first hit of the night for the Mets and the first runs they had scored in 15 innings.

The homer revved the raucous crowd into a frenzy and Valentin acknowledged them with a curtain call.

Valentin then sealed the deal with his 17th homer of the year two innings later, a solo shot that traveled even farther than his first, this time nailing the giant scoreboard in right-center. It was Valentin's 19th multi-home run game of his 13-year career, and it gave the Mets a sign that it finally was their night.

"Yeah, I have to admit, we started sensing it after that one," Paul Lo Duca said with a big grin, doused with champagne. "He's given us a lot of energy in the field this year, and his bat has been incredible for us as well. Those two shots were just huge."

Valentin, whom the White Sox decided not to re-sign after his five-year contract with them ended in 2004, admitted his sense of vindication after the Mets' victory.

"Yeah, I was disappointed, but I was excited when I signed here and I wanted to be able to contribute as much as I could this season," said Valentin, who spent an injury-filled year with the Dodgers in 2005. "I felt like I could help the club, and I worked hard in the offseason to get healthy and improve my game. To be able to do this, I'm telling you, it is the best feeling in the world."

General manager Omar Minaya credited Tony Bernazard, special assistant to the general manager, with convincing the organization to sign Valentin after the utility player struggled last season.

"It's a great feeling to know that we've been able to put the pieces together and to have players contribute up and down the lineup," said Minaya.

Valentin, who made 24 starts at third base and 19 in left field with the Dodgers, appeared in only 56 games and batted .170 with two home runs in 147 at-bats, spending a good part of the season on the disabled list with a sprained knee suffered in a collision at home plate.

"I'm so happy that everyone involved, from Willie [Randolph] to Omar to the rest of the organization, decided to give me a chance," said Valentin, who hit 20 or more home runs each season with Chicago. "They gave me the freedom to go out there and do my job and I've worked hard to prove them right."

Valentin's only other playoff experience came with the White Sox in his first season in 2000 and he hit .300 in 10 at-bats, with two doubles and two runs.

"It feels great to be back," shouted Valentin, who, with his 2-for-3 night, is now batting .276 for the season. "I never would have imagined this would be the case back in April, but here I am. It's just great."

While Valentin was soaked in champagne as the hero of the game, Lo Duca and Carlos Delgado reveled in the fact that they had finally made it to the postseason.

"Oh man, this is just unbelievable," Lo Duca said as Floyd doused him over his head with a bottle of beer. "But really, it's an amazing feeling to finally get here after all the hard work I put in, and it caps the journey right now. But I want to add more in the postseason."

While the title ends eight years of waiting for Lo Duca, it culminates a long stretch for Delgado.

Delgado, who spent 11 years with Toronto and one season with the Marlins, finally gets a chance to play in the playoffs.

"This is great, this is great," said Delgado. "I'm hoping we can go on to win the whole thing, but this is just great to be able to do this. And to do it in front of our fans. It's unbelievable."

Chris Girandola is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.