TEMPE, Ariz. — Making the jump from Class AA baseball straight to the major leagues is a pretty tough road, one that teams usually try to avoid asking of all but the readiest of players.
So consider it still a longshot for left-handed pitcher Roenis Elias to make the Mariners’ opening-day roster, despite the fact that he continues to open the eyes of the team’s decision-makers.
His latest attention-getting performance came Sunday against the Angels when he allowed two hits and one run in five innings in Seattle’s 5-3 victory.
“His stuff is plenty good,’’ manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He’s an interesting kid.’’
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Also a confident one.
Asked after the game if he thought he really had a chance to make the rotation, Elias replied, “Why not?’’
Or, maybe, Elias just knows he’s traveled a much more difficult road to get to where he is today.
The 25-year-old left-hander was born in Guantánamo, Cuba, and defected to Mexico in October 2010, bringing with him nothing but a backpack.
“I worked hard for years to get to this place and get this opportunity,’’ he said through an interpreter Sunday. “And we’ll see what happens.’’
Elias has called the decision to defect — which required a harrowing boat ride that lasted roughly 30 hours — a spur-of-the-moment thing. He did it, he has said, in large part to give his family a better life and to do so through baseball.
“The first goal that I had once I left Cuba was to get to the big leagues,’’ he said.
While playing for a team in Monterrey, Mexico, he was spotted by the Mariners at a tryout camp and signed on May 3, 2011.
Since then, he has risen swiftly through the organization, leading Class A High Desert (Calif.) in wins in 2012 and ranking fourth among all Mariners minor-leaguers in strikeouts in 2013 while at Class AA Jackson with 121.
A non-roster invitee to the major-league camp this year, he was 2-0 with a 1.23 earned-run average in three relief appearances before getting the start Sunday.
McClendon said the main issue with Elias has been refining his command.
“If you look at (his stats) he’d walk a guy and then strike the next guy out,’’ McClendon said. “I’d like to see less walks because you aren’t going to strike out as many guys at this level.’’
McClendon also said Elias has used up to five pitching deliveries in his career. The Mariners have worked with him to settle on just one, which Elias said has helped with his control and velocity.
Sunday, he faced just 18 batters in getting through five innings in 63 pitches.
“He threw strikes, showed a lot of poise, was down in the zone,’’ McClendon said. “He made quality pitches and held the runners. Pretty good outing for him.’’
He also didn’t seem fazed facing a lineup that featured the likes of Albert Pujols and Mike Trout, each of whom he retired twice, giving up a run in the fifth when Manny Aybar tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly.
Asked if he felt any nerves about what was regarded as a significant opportunity to showcase himself to the team, he said, “Not at all. From the time I left home, It doesn’t matter if it’s Albert Pujols. I’m going to be Elias and going to do what I’ve always done.’’
Asked if Elias has a chance to make the opening-day roster, McClendon said only “everybody that’s in a camp could win a job. That’s why they are here. … He’s still here.’’
While it seems more likely he ends up in Tacoma, there’s a little more uncertainty in the potential makeup of the team’s opening-day rotation than the Mariners would like. Injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker have made it unclear when each will be ready.
Elias, told it’s rare for players to make the leap straight from AA to the majors, responded, “Well, I may be one of them.’’
Making it even better would be if his family could share it with him. While his wife and young son are now with him, the rest of his family remains in Cuba.
“It was very difficult leaving my mother and father and family,’’ he said. “It’s hard. I haven’t seen them in four years. So it’s hard to be here without their support.”