SEATTLE -- Maybe it's his drop-off-the-table curveball. Maybe it's a confidence that stems from growing up in a country where baseball is religion and the government is always watching. Maybe it's the fact he's new to the league.
Whatever the case, Mariners rookie southpaw Roenis Elias dominated the Tigers on Sunday at Safeco Field, helping Seattle capture two of three games with a 4-0 win to improve to 28-28 on the season.
Elias gave up just three hits and no runs in his first shutout, striking out eight, walking one, hitting a batter and holding down a lineup that entered Sunday leading the American League with a .272 team batting average. He finished off the shutout by retiring Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez to end the game.
"It really doesn't surprise me," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "I said this in Spring Training. I didn't think there was much there that would effect this guy as far as nerves were concerned, given his situation and where he came from. He didn't disappoint. He just went out and did his job."
Only those with an intricate knowledge of the Mariners' farm system knew of Elias entering Spring Training. As a Southern League All-Star with Double-A Jackson last season, he went 6-11 with a 3.18 ERA. This just a few years after the 25-year-old escaped Cuba by moonlight on a 30-hour boat ride filled with refugees searching for a better life. He landed in Cancun, Mexico, eventually signing with the Mariners in 2011 after they saw him at a tryout.
When projected starters Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker went down with injuries early in the year, calling into question their availability for the beginning of the season, Elias used the Cactus League to pitch his way into the starting rotation despite having never appeared in a game with Triple-A Tacoma.
Two months into the season, Elias is 4-4 with a 3.53 ERA.
"He's doing OK, he's getting better. He's learning," McClendon said. "He tells me all the time I want to pitch, I want to stay in there. Well then pitch better. He pitched better, he stayed in. It was a great outing."
After struggling with his command during his previous four starts (0-2, 4.94 ERA), Elias threw 72 of 111 pitches for strikes Sunday. He did a hit a batter.
"I was told that to have success you have to have command of three pitches," Elias said through a translator. "Today, the curveball, the changeup and the fastball were all working."
McClendon said the changeup was what set this outing apart.
"He had all his secondary stuff. I thought his changeup was exceptional," he said. "He kept the fastball down for the most part, pitched in, out, curveball was good as well, but I thought the changeup was the equalizer today."
Elias is the first Mariners rookie to throw a shutout since Freddy Garcia blanked the Tigers on Aug. 24, 1999.
"He's got great stuff. He knows it. Everyone knows it. He just has to become more consistent with it," catcher Mike Zunino said. "Hopefully this is a step in the right direction, and he continues to have more confidence with his stuff and can attack hitters."
With the Mariners playing their fourth consecutive game without second baseman Robinson Cano (left hand contusion), Elias received help up and down a lineup that chased Tigers' right-hander Max Scherzer in the seventh inning after Brad Miller hit a solo home run to make it 4-0.
Scherzer (6-2, 3.20 ERA) gave up four runs and nine hits over 6 2/3 innings en route to the loss.
"It's been a while," Miller said after breaking a stretch of 36 games without a home run. "That felt good. That felt really good to have a couple rough at-bats early and to come back early and drive the ball. That was nice."
Miller went 1-for-3 with a run and RBI, lifting his average to .161. It was his fourth homer of the season and his first in 130 plate appearances.
"It was really, really nice to see," McClendon added. "Hopefully, this gets him going. He's been grinding, really working and it's been tough. Like I told him, 'you make it through this, you'll be battle tested.'"
The Mariners jumped on Scherzer in the first inning when right fielder Michael Saunders drove in Endy Chavez with an RBI double.
Seattle pushed two more across in the fifth when Willie Bloomquist lined a one-out RBI double, then James Jones followed with an RBI single of his own. Jones went 2-for-4 with an RBI but was replaced late in the game with Cole Gillespie because of tightness in his groin.
"I didn't want to take any chances," McClendon said. "I just got him out of there, and I'm sure he's gonna be fine."
Meanwhile, Chavez, Bloomquist and Kyle Seager also chipped in with multi-hit afternoons.
"We did a nice job. We grinded our at-bats out against a great pitcher. He's a Cy Young-award winner," McClendon said. "We did a nice job of really, really making him work. He's great. I've seen it first-hand."
With the win, the Mariners finished their season-long homestand with a 6-5 record and the luxury of knowing their young pitcher can blank any team on any day.
Said McClendon of Elias:
"His stuff is as good as any lefty's in the league."
Adam Lewis is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.