Elias has become much more than a fill-in

Elias has become much more than a fill-in

ST. PETERSBURG -- Left-hander Roenis Elias has now made six starts in place of the injured Hisashi Iwakuma, but the youngster is doing more than just filling in. Elias has become one of the cornerstones of Seattle's improved pitching staff, and he recorded his fifth straight quality start in Seattle's 4-1 win over Tampa Bay on Monday.

"Any time you lose a guy of Iwakuma's status, that's a big hit," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "But it was nice to have this young man there waiting in the wings. And he hasn't disappointed."

Elias improved to 2-1 with a 2.56 ERA and has yielded three runs or fewer in all six of his starts, including just one run in each of his last three. The last Mariners starter to hold opponents to one run or fewer in three straight games? That would be Iwakuma, who did it four times last Aug. 3-19.

Dating back to last July, Elias has allowed three runs or fewer in 16 straight starts, the third-longest stretch of such games by a Mariners pitcher. Erik Bedard had 20 straight starts of three runs or fewer in 2008-09, and Felix Hernandez racked up an 18-game streak last season.

"He's done just a tremendous job since he's been recalled," said McClendon, who initially sent Elias to Triple-A Tacoma to start the season after he lost the battle for the final spot to Taijuan Walker. "I thought today was probably not quite as good as his last outing, but pretty darn close."

Elias worked out of trouble well in this one, stranding eight runners in six frames and allowing just a solo homer to Logan Forsythe leading off the sixth.

"I just relax and try to throw strikes and maintain the situation by staying calm," Elias said of his ability to dodge trouble even after the Rays hit doubles in three straight innings.

But catcher Mike Zunino said the 26-year-old hurler seems to have a knack for digging in when needed.

"I think he clicks it in a little bit," Zunino said. "He focuses a little bit more and keeps the ball down in the zone. The way he's been throwing, he has a lot of trust in his changeup. He used that a couple times with guys on base to get ground balls and get us out of the inning."

With Iwakuma likely out until near the All-Star break with a strained lat, Elias will continue to be critical for a rotation that has the lowest ERA in the Majors over the past 34 days, at 3.04.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB, read his Mariners Musings blog, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.