SEATTLE — It’s not all quite as Roenis Elias remembers from the Seattle Mariners’ clubhouse. Felix Hernandez is pretty much the same loud, hair-looks-different-everyday self, but Elias never had a pool table right in front of his stall and there’s a lot of younger players compared to his last stay here, when he made his big-league debut with the Mariners to open the 2014 season.
The Mariners recalled the Cuban-born left-hander from Triple-A Tacoma earlier Friday before their game against the Tampa Bay Rays and designated another lefty for assignment, veteran Marc Rzepczynski.
But it didn’t take a translator to understand Elias’ response, saying what it took for him to make it back to this point after injuries relegated him to just four major league games with the Boston Red Sox the past two seasons.
“Trabajo,” Elias said, with Mariners bench coach Manny Acta close by to translate. “Trabajo, trabajo.”
For those without even a loose understanding of Spanish: “Work. Work, work.”
“I feel very fortunate because sometimes you stop and think that you might not get another opportunity to get up here,” Elias said, with Acta translating. “I went into that situation (Boston) and worked very hard, but the door didn’t open for me.
“I got the call yesterday and that made me very happy and caught me by surprise. I didn’t think this opportunity was going to come this fast.”
The Mariners reacquired Elias, 29, in a trade with the Red Sox in exchange for cash or a player to be named later in late April. The Mariners had sent him to Boston with reliever Carson Smith for pitchers Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro (neither are still with the Mariners) back in December of 2015.
The Red Sox began to convert Elias into a reliever before he returned to the Mariners’ organization. After one relief appearance with Triple-A Tacoma, Elias then started the past six games, including Wednesday when he went 6 2/3 innings, allowing one hit at Las Vegas.
Rzepczynski, 32, had evolved into a lefty matchup specialist who struggled to get left-handed hitters out. He didn’t record an out in four of his 18 appearances this season and averaged just over an out per appearance. His 9.39 ERA was highest on the Mariners’ active roster.
That’s far from where Rzepczynski was last season, when he allowed 10 runs in the 56 games when he faced at least one left-handed batter. This year he allowed seven runs in 17 games against left-handed batters.
The Mariners now have seven days to trade, release or outright the contract of Rzepczynski to the minor leagues.
“Tough call,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said before their Friday night game against the Tampa Bay Rays. “It’s been a struggle for him just to get the results that he or we were looking for and this is a do-good league. If you do good, you stay. But it doesn’t make it any easier, especially with a guy who has that much service time and has been around.”
But the decision was made easier with left-hander Wade LeBlanc’s emergence in the starting rotation and James Pazos proving he’s capable of handling the late-inning leverage situations against left-handers, with an ability to get right-handed bats out as well.
“No question,” Servais said. “But this was about Zep and where he fit into the team and you have to produce. That’s what the big leagues are about and we’ve been very clear from the outset of the season that we’re about 2018 and what’s going to help us win and take us to the next step and get us to the playoffs.”
Elias fills a void as a multi-inning lefty since LeBlanc moved into the rotation and he can make spot starts as needed.
The question — can he command. Reports from Boston had said he struggled with his fastball and ever-changing mechanics.
“His stuff has played well, but strike-throwing is key for him,” Servais said. “And when he gets it over the plate he usually has good results.”
Elias went 2-4 with a 4.94 ERA in 31 innings with 27 strikeouts and 12 walks in his seven games in Tacoma.
He said he’s seen his velocity increase, touching 94 mph with his fastball. But how will that play transitioning back to a big-league bullpen after his 2017 season was cut short by an oblique strain?
“I was pitching out of the pen over there (in Boston) so the only issue was when I went to Tacoma and they asked me to start,” Elias said. “The stamina issue is different because when you come back to the bullpen for one or two innings it’s not the same as when you are starting and you have to go six or seven innings. But I’ve prepared my mind to come over here and pitch out of the pen because I’ve done that in Boston.”
Elias went 10-12 with a 3.85 ERA in 29 starts his rookie season in 2014. He signed with the Mariners as a minor-league free agent in 2011 after he defected from Cuba in 2010.
“The work I put in last year and throughout the offseason and all the routines I learned over in Boston, that’s the same thing I’m doing here,” Elias said. “And that’s what’s going to keep doing it for me because I don’t want to get hurt again. So I’m just working hard.”