CLEVELAND -- The construction of the Indians' rotation has been a classic case of taking one step at a time.
Two springs ago, the Indians had three spots to fill in their rotation at the beginning of the season, with the only locks being Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook. This year, Cleveland had just two openings within the starting staff when players arrived in camp.
Looking ahead to 2012, the Tribe now seemingly only has one vacancy up for grabs, depending on what transpires over the course of the winter. On Saturday, David Huff continued his early audition, turning in a solid effort in an 8-2 win over the Twins in the first game of a day-night doubleheader at Progressive Field.
"Over the last two years, it has been nice to improve," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "You can see the progress."
Acta referred to improving the makeup of the rotation from season to season during his time at the helm for Cleveland. The strides made this year -- both at Triple-A and in the Majors -- by Huff and Jeanmar Gomez have helped the Tribe view both starters as realistic candidates for the 2012 rotation.
This season, sinkerballer Justin Masterson developed into a staff leader and workhorse, while Josh Tomlin was the picture of consistency before being shut down with a minor right elbow issue. Carmona struggled through ups and downs, but was reliable once again in terms of his work load.
In July, the Indians acquired star pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, adding the right-hander to the solid trio already in the fold. That quartet will probably remain intact for next season, leaving one spot to fill. Right-hander Carlos Carrasco, who opened the year in the No. 2 spot, will miss 2012, due to a serious elbow injury.
Barring an offseason addition, Huff and Gomez will return as the favorites to fill that slot.
"The fact is that Carrasco is out," Acta said. "These two guys coming up here and pitching the way they have pitched give us a bit of a comfort level. That doesn't mean that we're just going to sit and not bring anybody else in, if we think we have to.
"I think we're still going to be aggressive in trying to improve our pitching."
One thing is certain: Cleveland is confident in the core group currently in place.
"We've got a lot of potential," Huff said. "Gomey's been pitching really well. Tomlin was, as you guys always said, 'Mr. Consistency.' He's going to be coming back healthy. Masterson, our leader, he's going to be back to prime form. Fausto, he's going to be pitching like he usually does, and Ubaldo as well.
"So many guys. So many arms. We're feeling pretty confident about next year."
Gomez, who will make his final start of the year on Tuesday, has gone 5-0 with a 2.10 ERA in his past five appearances. Both he and Huff began this season at Triple-A, worked on various adjustments and showed progress in their stints with Cleveland.
That was important for the Indians.
"It was nice to see it pay dividends at this level," Acta said. "It doesn't do us any good going into the offseason, just looking at great Triple-A numbers, and that's it."
It was also critical for the pitchers' confidence, too.
"It's good for those guys," said outfielder Shelley Duncan, "because you never know what's going to happen with this rotation next year. I've heard Manny say before that you don't need a good one through five. You almost need a good one through eight, guys that can come in and help out. We've got a lot of those guys."
In his final outing of the season, Huff limited the Twins to two runs on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings. The lefty struck out seven and walked none, but he was kicking himself over a lack of efficiency that saw him exit after 101 pitches. Even so, it was a nice bounce-back after a rough stretch of starts for Huff.
Over his previous four turns, Huff had gone 0-4 with a 7.11 ERA for the Indians (79-78). That followed a six-game stint with the Tribe in which he went 2-2 with a 2.08 ERA, showing off the mechanical adjustments he made and the cutter he added during his time with Triple-A Columbus.
Huff got back on track against Minnesota (60-97).
"He lost it a little bit over the last couple of games," Acta said. "It's just like everything else. Sometimes it takes somebody from the outside looking in to let you know what you're doing right or wrong."
Huff left with one out in the sixth inning, two hitters after he gave up a run-scoring double to Trevor Plouffe that pulled the game into a 2-2 deadlock. Rookie Zach Putnam (1-1), who picked up his first Major League victory, escaped further harm in the frame, giving the Tribe's offense a chance to go to work.
The Indians responded by taking advantage of a wild performance from Twins lefty Francisco Liriano, pounding out six runs in the home half of the sixth. Liriano walked two batters and then hit Travis Hafner with a pitch to load the bases with no outs, setting up a sacrifice fly from Duncan that pushed the Indians up, 3-2.
What followed was a relentless stretch that included run-scoring hits from Matt LaPorta, Jack Hannahan, Kosuke Fukudome and Jason Kipnis. Combined with the two runs Duncan delivered with a double off Minnesota starter Brian Duensing in the first inning, Cleveland had more than enough to cruise to a win.
"I just wasn't locating my pitches very good," Liriano said. "I think I was rushing out there and trying to overthrow. I was too excited. The ball was moving everywhere. It's one of those things."
The sixth-inning flurry helped Huff finish his season with a team win.
That had the lefty smiling.
"From where I was at the beginning of the season," Huff said, "to where I am now, I made some huge strides."