CLEVELAND -- Chocolate-flavored whipped cream ran down his cheeks as tears filled his eyes.

It was a moment equal parts preposterous and poignant.

Here was Eric Wedge, the normally mild-mannered manager of the Indians, showing a rare display of public emotion, with the ridiculousness of a pie-in-the-face gag and a champagne- and beer-soaked celebration surrounding him.

But that moment on Sept. 23, shortly after Wedge's Indians clinched their first American League Central Division title and playoff berth under his reign, was telling. Wedge choked up a bit because he was watching a group of players who stuck with his day-to-day, grind-it-out mentality finally let loose in celebration.

"I'm just so proud of these guys," Wedge told reporters. "I love watching them play. This is, without a doubt, the greatest moment in my career."

A mere 5 1/2 weeks earlier, it was a much different story.

On Aug. 14, Wedge's Indians had just suffered a 6-2 loss to the Tigers at home, dropping them a game behind Detroit in the AL Central standings.

The Tribe had been hanging tough in the division chase all season, but its performance at the plate had grown lethargic, and its record since June 1 was 32-35, as a result.

Wedge had rarely used his postgame interview sessions with the media to call out players. On that night, however, he sent a message to his clubhouse, openly questioning the toughness of his team and calling on its leaders to step up.

"It's easy to be tough when you're winning," Wedge said. "Now is the time when we have to toughen up. Enough's enough. Now, we're going to see how tough we are."

Perhaps it was a coincidence. Or perhaps the message got through.

Whatever the case, the Indians toughened up considerably from Aug. 15 forward, going 31-12 down the stretch and capturing the division crown by eight games.

The emotional impact of a manager's harsh words can be overrated or understated, depending on your opinion.

General manager Mark Shapiro, for one, doesn't feel that speech was the spark that turned the Tribe around. Shapiro does, however, believe Wedge doesn't get the credit he deserves for this club reaching its stated goal of postseason play.

"Outside of Cleveland, he gets credit," Shapiro said. "Inside of Cleveland, his contributions get overlooked. One of Eric's greatest strengths has always been his consistency. He's provided this team with a steady, consistent strength in leadership and enabled us to help our players overcome some challenges."

The challenges presented to the Indians this season were relentless -- and well-documented.

Throughout the craziness of playing April home games in Milwaukee because of blizzard conditions in Cleveland and missing off-days as the result of rescheduled dates against the Mariners, Wedge kept his club focused.

And throughout the many tweaks to the lineup, rotation and bullpen and the wealth of callups from the farm system, the team never fell more than 2 1/2 games out of first place.

"What makes a good manager," starter Paul Byrd said, "is a guy who gets the most out of his players, makes good moves, provides a good atmosphere in the clubhouse and knows how to interact with somebody who might be a head case or somebody who might be a young guy. You have to be able to adapt to people.

"I think [Wedge has] handled everything well. He's stayed even-keeled all year and gotten the most out of his players."

Staying on an even keel has been Wedge's specialty since he became the club's manager before the 2003 season. But never was it more important for him to stick to that mind-set than this season.

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After the Indians finished in fourth place with a 78-84 record last year, Wedge took a good, hard look at his club's -- and his own -- inability to live up to expectations.

Outsiders began wondering if he might be on the hot seat. He was entering the final year of his contract, with the Indians intending to wait until after the '07 season to decide whether to exercise a two-year option on him or not.

Yet the Wedge who arrived to Spring Training camp in Winter Haven, Fla., was more relaxed than ever. He credited the birth of his daughter, Ava, the previous season with giving him a new perspective on his job.

"I try not to take myself too seriously," he said, "and this gives you even more perspective when it comes to the game and life."

When the season started, the Indians played some seriously good baseball. Wedge had long been criticized for his club's poor performance in April, but this year's installment went 14-8 in the month -- its best April winning percentage since 1999.

By midseason, Shapiro was handing Wedge a three-year contract extension.

That's not to say the Indians, who operated with a $61.7 million payroll that was more than $30 million less than that of the second-place Tigers, never stubbed their toe. They went 12-14 in July and 13-18 in their first 31 games out of the All-Star break.

Wedge was not faultless. He was, for example, hesitant to hand the right-field duties to Franklin Gutierrez in the second half, even as Gutierrez was clearly outplaying veteran Trot Nixon. And some lookers-on criticized Wedge's constant tinkering with the lineup, which didn't cease until late August.

But what Wedge's Indians never did was suffer profound and impactful streaks of defeat. The team didn't lose more than three games in a row until a four-game stretch from July 27-Aug. 1. And when it lost four straight again between Aug. 10 and 14, Wedge put his foot down.

In that postgame address, Wedge didn't call out his players simply for the sake of calling them out.

"Any time I talk to reporters," he said, "I assume players are going to see, hear or read about it."

Added Shapiro: "That was strategic for him not to hold back."

When it comes to getting in players' faces at every wrong turn, Wedge does hold back. He likes to joke that those who claim to have general philosophies about managing do so "because it makes them sound smarter than what they are," but he does have one general philosophy: Respect the length of the season and the ups and downs that come with it.

"I believe it's the manager's job to stay out of the way when the team is going good and get out front when the team is struggling," Wedge said. "This game is hard. It's hard to play this game and have a great deal of success. I have an appreciation for what these guys do."

And Wedge's players have an appreciation for his managerial style.

"He stays out of our way," third baseman Casey Blake said. "He believes in his players and lets them take care of their issues."

But, Blake added, "He's not going to put up with a lot of selfishness. He takes care of that."

The Indians, likewise, have taken care of business this season, with a clubhouse that is devoid of egos.

And when they guaranteed themselves a postseason berth, Wedge finally let his emotional guard down.

"This is what it's all about," he said. "If you care about a group of people, you want to see them happy. You want to see them have success. These guys care about each other, and I care about them."