CLEVELAND -- Before Edwin Encarnacion's arrival, before the fire-stoking frustration of Game 7, before the 3-1 lead on the Cubbies, before the October run that reinvigorated a dormant fan base, there was the fifth inning of Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox.
Terry Francona would be praised for what he did with two outs in that inning, when he brought in reliable relief ace Andrew Miller in an aggressive and early spot to maintain a 4-3 lead and then rode Miller through the sixth and into the seventh of what would turn out to be a 5-4 win.
In reality, in the internal stomach tumbling that only a Major League manager can fully appreciate, there was great anxiety and less-than-complete confidence in the supposed genius behind the bold bullpen maneuvering.
"Forty pitches later," Francona says now, referring to Miller's swollen pitch count, "I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, what am I doing?'"
Thus illustrates the fascinating fine line that can make or break a ballclub on the big stage and influence all that follows.
Francona can laugh now about Game 1 because it all worked out. The Indians had secured home-field advantage over the Red Sox on the final day of the regular season with a home run off the bat of newly activated catcher Yan Gomes, who had spent the year either hurt or hitting .167 (did we mention it's a fine line?). And they used that Game 1 win at home as the springboard to a month in which the magic lasted all the way through Game 4 of the Fall Classic.
While the World Series result still stings, the experience itself invigorated this organization, in ticket sales (representatives from the team said the season-ticket base has leapt from around 7,500 to around 11,000), in the surprise signing of Encarnacion, in the unmistakable confidence that was on display as members of the club shook hands, kissed babies and of course signed autographs at the well-attended Tribe Fest over the weekend.
People will peg the Indians as prohibitive favorites in the AL Central and a decent bet to go the distance because they're adding Encarnacion (146 OPS+ over the last five years) and a presumably healthy Michael Brantley (career OPS+ of 113), Carlos Carrasco (134 ERA+ over the last three years) and Danny Salazar (123 ERA+ over the last two years) to what already proved to be a World Series-caliber roster.
"Everyone feels excited about this team right now," Carrasco says. "Now, when people face the Cleveland Indians, they're going to be intimidated."
No, it ain't the 1990s, when the Indians played in front of 455 straight sellouts and were an absolute American League powerhouse for half a decade. But it's a reasonable proximity that puts enormous -- and welcomed -- pressure on the 2017 club.
"Is it different? Yes," team owner Paul Dolan says. "Two years ago, we were picked by Sports Illustrated to win the World Series, but not everybody believed it, and maybe they were right. This year, we're going to be one of those teams that are picked, and I think most people would believe it. That's what you want. You want to be one of those teams that's picked to win. That's the kind of pressure you want."
Before the run to the '16 Series, Dolan and his father, Larry, had been much-maligned among frustrated fans who either didn't understand the complexities of the open market in a game without a cap or didn't care. People simply clamored for the club to spend more money.
Discouraged by the fiscal frugality and/or unappreciative of the fact that the club never went into the true tailspin of a tanking model, those same fans had all but abandoned the ballclub. The Indians haven't drawn 2 million fans to Progressive Field in a regular season since 2008, the year after their previous ALCS appearance. And so the cycle of modest payrolls and small crowds continued, seemingly into perpetuity.
After the Indians made what was considered an industry-stunning hire of Francona before the 2013 season, benefiting from his dad's ties to the team and Francona's own relationship when then-president Mark Shapiro, the club made a 24-win improvement and went to the AL Wild Card Game in Francona's first year. But just to demonstrate how the other side of that fine line can work, consider this: The Indians lost that 2013 one-and-done and saw their attendance decrease in the 2014 follow-up (from a nightly average of 19,419 to 17,746), despite posting another winning record.
In other words, if the Miller move had blown up in Francona's face, and had the Red Sox rumbled back to life and changed the scope of that series, who knows what the Tribe's organizational outlook for '17 would be?
Yes, there would still be optimism associated with Brantley (shoulder surgery), Carrasco (broken hand) and Salazar (elbow flexor strain) coming back and the Indians could have re-signed Mike Napoli with the hope that he can repeat a career year. But the Encarnacion signing, manifested as it was in the hunger to get that elusive fourth win in the Fall Classic and partially financed as it was by the revenues of October and a November season-ticket surge, would be doubtful, at best.
So even if the Game 7 gods (and Mother Nature herself) went against them, the Indians are appreciative of the way the ball bounced the rest of that postseason and mindful that "World Series or bust" is their new reality.
This club, like any other, has questions. How much can reasonably be expected of Brantley after two shoulder surgeries and a lost season? Encarnacion's contract made it unfeasible to retain Rajai Davis, whose AL-leading stolen base total obviously won't be accounted for. And the sheer mass of workload taken on by the pitching staff -- especially Miller, who set a postseason relief record with 19 1/3 innings pitched, and staff ace Corey Kluber, who pitched three times on short rest and 34 1/3 October innings overall -- presents the possibility of lag effects or even injury in the new year.
But the biggest question of all is what happens if the Indians don't deliver? For the first time in franchise history, the Indians will carry a nine-figure Opening Day payroll, which figures to be around $130 million. Ownership OK'd the Encarnacion signing knowing not even the 2 million attendance mark will allow them to reach the break-even point. It's going to take a deep October run to justify the expenditure, and the rising costs of the core could lead to some hard roster decisions in 2018 and beyond.
These are the realities for any small- or mid-market team that goes "all in," as the Indians unmistakably have. They'll enter 2017 both justifiably expectant of big things and fully understanding of the game's whims.
Francona, for one, acknowledges that he could bring Miller into the same exact situation as he did in the Division Series and have it unravel this time.
"There's not a lot of difference," Francona says, "between being smart and being dumb."
Yes, it's a fine line between winning and losing. The Indians, despite an injury depleted roster, treaded it remarkably well last October. And with so many hopes and so much money invested in the season ahead, they need to come out on the right side of that line in 2017.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.