WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It’s not entirely accurate to say the Nationals never saw the real Roenis Elías last season.
“We saw it,” manager Davey Martinez said. “The first day. Then after that ...”
This is true. Acquired from the Mariners on July 31 to help fix the Nats’ major bullpen woes, Elías made his debut two nights later in Arizona, summoned by Martinez with one out in the bottom of the sixth. The lefty got David Peralta to fly out, then struck out Adam Jones. All good, right?
Nope, because then came the “after that.” With the left-handed Jake Lamb due to lead off the bottom of the seventh, Martinez decided to let Elías bat for himself in the top of the inning and bring him back out to the mound for one more batter.
You know what happened next. Despite explicit instructions - in two languages, Martinez insists - not to swing, Elías tapped a ground ball to the right side and then tried to beat it out. In the process, he pulled his hamstring.
Elías returned four weeks later - “He tried to rush to come back and try to help us,” Martinez said - and it was an ill-advised decision. He made three appearances, faced 11 hitters, retired only five of them and served up two homers. He went back on the injured list to give his hamstring more time to heal, and he never appeared in the postseason.
It was, truly, a wasted season.
Now, a healthy Elías is back and determined to reveal his true colors.
“My job this year is to actually show the Nationals and prove I can do something, because they didn’t get to see that,” the 31-year-old said today, via interpreter Melissa Strozza. “And I feel like a lot of people definitely had negative things to say, because they only saw the negative outcome last year. So I really have to prove a lot of people wrong this year.”
Elías got his first opportunity to re-write his story this afternoon. In his first appearance of the spring, he faced three top Mets lineup regulars, including a pair of lefties. He got Jeff McNeil to ground out. He gave up a single to Brandon Nimmo. Then he got reigning National League Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso to ground into an inning-ending double play.
“I like what I saw out of him,” Martinez said. “First outing, (his velocity is) in the 90s. He threw some pretty good pitches.”
Both outs Elías recorded came on curveballs, and that’s especially important to note. He struggled mightily against left-handed batters last season - they hit a whopping .368 with five homers in 57 at-bats - and Martinez believes he can reverse that trend in part by throwing more curveballs, a pitch he threw only 9.4 percent of the time in 2019 (way down from his career rate of 20.7 percent).
“We’ve already been working on it a little bit,” he said, mentioning veteran starter Aníbal Sánchez as a member of the staff who has been helping out. “So I threw a few in there today. Also my sinker going in. We’ll continue to work on that all spring.”
The Nationals really need Elías to figure it out. Aside from closer Sean Doolittle, they haven’t had a reliable left-handed reliever in several years, having watched the likes of Sammy Solís, Matt Grace, Tim Collins, Enny Romero and countless others come and go.
They want to see the real Elías emerge. And he’s convinced it will happen.
“I think this is going to be a good year,” he said. “Hopefully you guys will be hearing a lot of good stuff about Elías.”