John McGrath: Can't say the name Roenis Elias? Tigers won’t soon forget

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comJune 2, 2014 

Tigers Mariners Baseball

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Roenis Elias right, greets Mariners first base coach Andy Van Slyke, left, after Elias threw a complete game shut out in a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Sunday, June 1, 2014, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

TED S. WARREN — AP

He doesn’t speak the language, but Roenis Elias’ body English was eloquent Sunday afternoon at Safeco Field.

Preparing to work the top of the ninth inning, Elias didn’t trudge toward the mound with his head down and his shoulders slumped, brooding about the murderer’s row of Detroit hitters he was about to face.

Instead, he raced out of the dugout, playfully leaping over the first-base line.

Moments later — 10 pitches, to be exact — Elias completed his 4-0 shutout by retiring Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, who began the day with a combined 27 home runs and 106 RBIs. The trio finished the day without a hit.

Elias, who never had thrown a complete game in his four seasons of pro baseball, could have been forgiven for allowing nerves to overwhelm him. But he’s wired differently than the typical rookie.

During the bottom of the eighth inning, Elias said through an interpreter, “I sat down and told myself, ‘I’ve got Kinsler, Carbrera and Martinez. I’m gonna go back out there and make my pitches and just let them hit it.’ ”

When the Mariners made the surprising decision to fast-forward Elias from Double-A to the Seattle starting rotation in the spring, little was known about the 25-year-old left-hander aside the fact he escaped from Guantanamo, Cuba on a boat and briefly relocated to Mexico.

Little is still known about Elias, but details of his competitive personality are emerging.

That rush to the mound, for instance, is a habit.

“He’ll beat the other team onto the field when they’re trying to get off it,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “He’s a high-energy guy who likes to get out there and pitch.

“The biggest thing is trying to keep his emotion and energy in check. He’s a passionate, passionate pitcher.”

Elias wants the ball, needs the ball, has to have the ball, and he’s not shy about expressing that desire to manager Lloyd McClendon.

“He goes to me all the time and says, ‘I want to pitch, I want to stay in there,’ ” McClendon said. “And I say, ‘Then pitch better.’ ”

Elias didn’t merely pitch better than he has in any start since his 2010 escape from Cuba. By relying on a three-pitch repertoire — a fastball that routinely registers 93-94 mph on the radar gun, a curveball with a radical vertical break and a newly refined change-up — he threw the first shutout by a Mariners rookie since Freddie Garcia beat the Tigers on Aug. 24, 1999.

“I was asked earlier: What does he have to do to be successful?” McClendon said. “He just needs to throw strikes. His stuff is as good as any lefty in the league. It’s quality, quality stuff. If he’s throwing strikes, he’s usually around late in a ballgame.”

Elias began Sunday with a 3-4 record and 4.02 ERA, solid numbers but not indicative of a phenom in the midst. He was tied for third among big-league rookies in wins and strikeouts, tied for second in innings pitched, and tied for first in starts.

Striking out nine Tigers batters, while scattering three singles and allowing one walk, has a way of changing both perceptions and expectations. In less than three hours, Elias transformed from a respectable back-of-the-rotation starter into an American League rookie of the year candidate.

Through May, the award appeared to be between the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka (8-1, with a league-leading 2.06 ERA) and the White Sox’ Jose Abreu, another Cuban refugee who was named American League player of the month for April. Before missing two weeks with ankle tendinitis, Abreu, scheduled to be activated Monday, hit 15 homers.

Tanaka and Abreu remain the rookie of the year co-favorites, but Elias has at least joined them in the discussion.

“He worked ahead of guys,” Zunino said. “He didn’t fall behind, and if he did, he worked right back into the count. He took control of all that himself. He was ready to go on being more prepared.”

“What a performance,” said shortstop Brad Miller, who enjoyed something of a breakthrough game of his own — he hit a home run, his fourth of the season and first since April 11. “To go at that lineup and face Cabrera and Victor Martinez four times each? It’s just what we needed. He went out and set the tone.

“A great game for him against one of the best lineups in the league. It’s pretty sweet.”

Roenis Elias isn’t yet a household name. Even the correct pronunciation of “Elias’’ — it’s “a-LEE-us,” sounds like “elitist” — figures to be butchered before he gains national recognition.

But there’s no doubt the Mariners have found themselves a potential star whose response to the challenge of completing a shutout was to run to the mound, raring to go.

With body English like that, the Cuban kid who only speaks Spanish said it all.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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