TEMPE, Ariz. — Roenis Elias is closing in on a dream that sprouted in Cuba and survived a defection and an ongoing separation from his family before ripening in the whistlestops that comprise the Seattle Mariners’ farm system.
“The first goal I had, once I left Cuba, was to get to the big leagues,” he said. “I’ve worked hard for years to get to this place, this opportunity. We’ll see what happens.”
What happened Sunday was Elias rolled through the Los Angeles Angels for five sparkling innings in a 5-3 victory at Tempe Diablo Stadium. He permitted one run and just two hits in an efficient 63-pitch effort.
These were by and large the real Angels, too.
Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, David Freese, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar — much the same group the Mariners likely will see in five of the regular season’s first nine games.
“His stuff is real good,” manager Lloyd McClendon said before the game. “When he’s in the zone, they don’t do a lot with it. ... He’s interesting.”
“He’s still interesting,” McClendon said.
Fine. Let’s go with that. “Interesting” is as good a word as any to describe the most pleasant development in the Mariners’ camp to date. Add “confident” and “unflappable.”
When told what he’s attempting to do — jump from Double-A to the majors — is a rare achievement, Elias shrugged and responded: “Well, I’m going to be one of them.”
Who saw this coming?
Elias, 25, received a nonroster invite after showing promise last year at Double-A Jackson despite a 6-11 record and a tendency to struggle with command at times.
Opportunity then beckoned when two of the Mariners’ starters, Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker, suffered injuries that seem certain to force them to open the season on the disabled list.
Elias seized the chance.
First he worked a scoreless inning with two strikeouts in the intrasquad game. Then came three solid relief outings of increasing length in which he yielded just one earned run in 7 innings.
So when the Mariners opted Sunday to shift veteran Scott Baker to a minor league game to avoid a third spring start against the Angels, they gave the ball to Elias for a higher-leverage screen test.
He insisted he wasn’t nervous.
“No, not at all,” he said. “From the time I left home, it doesn’t matter if it’s Pujols or anyone else, I’m going to be Elias. I’m going to do what I’ve always done.”
The result was, well, interesting.
The Mariners have made no secret of their desire to bolster their rotation, even though club officials hope Iwakuma and Walker can rejoin the unit by mid- to late April.
What if the answer is already here?
“Left-handed and he’s 91 to 94 (mph),” McClendon said. “He throws strikes. He’s got quality stuff. He competes. He holds runners.”
Elias was 22 when he defected from Cuba to Mexico in late 2010 while playing for Guantanamo in the Serie Nacional.
The Mariners signed him as a minor league free agent May 3, 2011, thanks to work by scouts Ted Heid and Patrick Guerrero. Elias then started his professional career with one scoreless inning in the Arizona Rookie League.
“It was very difficult to leave my mother and father, my family,” said Elias, who now resides in Austin, Texas. “It’s hard. I haven’t seen them in four years. It’s hard to be over here and do this without their support.
“Luckily, I do have my wife and little boy to support me.”
Make no mistake: Elias isn’t a finished product. McClendon said he arrived in camp still delivering pitches from five different arm angles because, in Elias’ words, “I’m from Cuba.”
The Mariners quickly changed that.
“I’ve noticed a big difference,” Elias said. “That’s really helped out. When I went to one motion, I saw a little spike in velocity and control. So, that’s really helped out. You guys saw the results today.”
Now, the dream almost seems in reach.
“It could be,” he said. “Why not?” TUESDAY: M’s vs. Padres, 7:05 p.m., Peoria, Ariz., Root Sportsbob.email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @TNT_Mariners