TEMPE, Ariz. — Roenis Elias is closing in on a dream that sprouted in Cuba, survived a defection and an ongoing separation from his family before ripening in the whistlestops that comprise the Mariners’ farm system.
“The first goal I had, once I left Cuba,” he said, “was to get to the big leagues. 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 tainted run and just two hits in an efficient 63-pitch effort.
These were, pretty much, the real Angels, too.
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Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, David Freese, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar… much the same group the Mariners will likely see in five of the regular season’s first nine games.
“His stuff is real good,” manager Lloyd McClendon said prior to 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 non-roster invite after showing promise last year at Double-A Jackson despite a 6-11 record and a tendency, at times, to struggle with command.
Opportunity then beckoned when two of the club’s 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 1/3 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 are hopeful Iwakuma and Walker can each 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. He’s…”
Yep, that word.
Elias was 22 when 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 on May 3, 2011 thanks to work by scouts Ted Heid and Patrick Guerrero. Elias then started his pro 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 his 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?”