ANAHEIM, Calif. — Roenis Elias gave an impish grin at the question.
How do you say “the closer” in Spanish?
“El Cerrador,” he said.
“No, no, no,” he said before pausing and adding with that same grin, “Maybe.”
Maybe is probably the best mindset. To be fair, the Mariners are stubbornly sticking with their “closer by committee,” which was enacted after Hunter Strickland suffered a Grade 2 lat strain in the fifth game of the season — an injury that will keep him out till June at least. But for the past two nights at Angels Stadium, Elias filled the role ably, notching saves on both nights, giving him a total of four this season.
The Mariners signed Elias as a minor league free agent in 2011 after he defected from Cuba to Mexico. Groomed as a starter in Seattle’s system, he made his big league debut in 2014 as a part of the opening day rotation. He posted a 10-12 record in 2014 and made 20 starts in 2015 for the Mariners, going 5-8 with a 4.14 ERA. That offseason he was traded to the Red Sox along with reliever Carson Smith for lefty Wade Miley. It was a trade that helped neither team. Smith battled injuries. Elias struggled in a few brief call-ups while general manager Jerry Dipoto traded Miley midseason.
The Mariners re-acquired Elias early last season to provide some depth as a spot starter and a long reliever. But this season, he’s found some success pitching in higher leverage situations. He still have the versatility to pitch multiple innings, but also has shown the ability to come in and shut the door.
“It’s very valuable,” manager Scott Servais said. “A number of teams have noticed the value of a guy or two like that and what they can do for your entire ballclub. You can put him in late, put him in early and let him run a little and get through eight or nine hitters or just try to get through three or four. He’s been huge for us.”
It appears his days of being a starter are behind him.
“I think he likes it,” Servais said. “He wants to pitch as much as possible. The bullpen allows him to do that.”
While there have been plenty of subpar performances in that bullpen, Elias has been solid. He’s made 12 appearances, posting a 2.63 ERA. He’s allowed earned runs in just two of those outings. The Mariners stressed having a more consistent arm slot and release point this offseason and it’s made his results more consistent. The mindset of relieving also fits Elias.
“It’s just simplified everything for him,” Servais said. “As a starter, you get so caught up in different areas of how you want to attack opposing hitters. Whereas when you are a reliever, you go out there and say, ‘this is my best stuff’ and you go right after them. You really keep it as simple as possible. It’s good for him.”
Elias’ changeup has been a significant pitch in this success. It helps neutralize right-handed hitters, who otherwise might gear up for his mid-90s fastball. Opposing hitters have a .077 batting average off the 47 changeups he’s thrown this season.
“It’s always been a good pitch for him,” Servais said. “I think it’s gotten better — the action of the pitch. It’s got a little bit more fade to it, a little more depth to it. He’s not afraid of going to it in any count. Guys get geared up for his fastball. In the past, you’d see him go a lot to the curveball and the changeup was his third pitch. Now the changeup is probably his second pitch.”