SEATTLE – The baseball had been struck a few minutes prior by Victor Martinez and caught by Michael Saunders, and now here it was in the Seattle Mariners’ clubhouse, being handed to rookie left-hander Roenis Elias as a keepsake to remind him of the best performance of his young professional career.
“Thank you,” said Elias, who defected from Cuba in 2010, then worked his way through the Mariners minor-league system, then was inserted into the Mariners’ starting rotation after spring training this season despite never pitching above the Double-A level.
That might have seemed a risky move at the time. It doesn’t anymore.
Elias was masterful against the Detroit Tigers on Sunday afternoon, fooling one of the Major League’s toughest lineups with an array of changeups and curveballs, pitching a complete-game, three-hit shutout as he led the Mariners to a 4-0 victory at Safeco Field.
It was the first complete-game of Elias’ career, which entails all of 12 starts. It was also the first shutout thrown by a Mariners rookie since Freddy Garcia did it in 1999.
“He had all his secondary stuff. His changeup was exceptional,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said afterward. “He kept the fastball down for the most part. Curveball was good as well. I thought the changeup was the equalizer today.”
That was the refrain, too, from Mariners catcher Mike Zunino, who said of Elias’ changeup: “It’s the best he’s thrown it.”
“He’s had great life on it and he kept it down in the zone today,” Zunino said. “I think the more he’s throwing it and the bigger situations he’s throwing it in, he’s getting more confidence in it. I think that’s the key – just building his sort of repertoire of pitches.”
This was as efficient as Elias (4-4, 3.53 ERA) has been this season. He’d gone seven innings twice before, and his 111 pitches on Sunday matched the most he’s thrown in a Major League game.
Everything worked, the 25-year-old said.
“I was told that to have success you have to have command of three pitches,” Elias said through an interpreter. “And today the fastball, curveball and changeup were all working.”
As a result, he dominated. Detroit advanced exactly one runner past first base. That was Martinez, who walked to lead off the second inning, then moved to second base when Nick Castellanos singled with two outs.
In between were two strikeouts. Elias finished with eight of those, though his first might have been most impressive, as All-Star first baseman Miguel Cabrera fanned at a curveball that set the tone for a difficult day.
Bryan Holaday’s two-out single in the fifth and Torii Hunter’s single in the seventh were the Tigers’ only other hits. Even after Elias hit Danny Worth with a pitch with one out in the eighth, he induced a 5-4-3 double-play ball from the next batter to turn potential trouble into another quick inning.
“He’s got great stuff and he knows it,” Zunino said. “Everyone knows it. He just has to become more consistent with it. Hopefully this is a step in the right direction. He continues to have more confidence with his stuff and he can attack hitters even more.”
The Mariners (28-28) didn’t need much offense behind him, but they went ahead and scored some runs anyway. Saunders drove in Endy Chavez with a double in the first. Willie Bloomquist, starting at second base again in place of the injured Robinson Cano, recorded another two hits, including an RBI double in the fifth. He later scored on an RBI single by James Jones.
Brad Miller, the Mariners shortstop who entered the game batting .158 and battling a near season-long slump, hit his first home run since April 11 – 130 plate appearances ago – in the seventh to provide the final cushion.
Relief pitchers Danny Farquhar and Fernando Rodney each readied in the Mariners bullpen, but McClendon said it wasn’t a difficult decision to send Elias back to the mound for the ninth inning.
Mariners pitching coach Rick Waits checked in briefly to see if Elias was still good to go. He’d thrown 102 pitches through eight innings, and Ian Kinsler, Cabrera and Martinez were due up for the Tigers.
“When I came back to the dugout I just sat down and told myself, ‘I’ve got Kinsler, Cabrera and Martinez,’” Elias said through an interpreter. “I’m going to go back out there and just throw my pitches and let them hit it.”
Nine pitches produced a flyout, a groundout and another flyout, and the only thing left to do was track down the baseball used for the final out, the one Elias accepted afterward as a souvenir.
“His stuff is as good as any lefty in the league,” McClendon said. “He’s got quality, quality stuff … If he throws strikes, he’s usually going go be around late in the ballgame.”
And if he throws those strikes the way he did Sunday, he’s going to be around for a while, period.
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple