OAKLAND -- Seattle's rotation looks like it's rounding into form.
Roenis Elias followed up Chris Young's strong start Monday by holding the A's to three runs over 6 1/3 innings Tuesday. With Felix Hernandez looking like an ace and Hisahi Iwakuma getting set to make his second start of the year Thursday, the Mariners have to be feeling good about the state of their starters.
No one has been a bigger surprise for Seattle than Elias. Considering the seven-inning, 10-strikeout game Elias posted against the Yankees last week, the 25-year-old said he's growing more confident with every start.
"I always have confidence in my pitches," Elias said in Spanish. "I work hard on that and attacking the strike zone and mixing it up."
Elias defected from Cuba in December 2010 through Mexico and eventually caught the eye of the Mariners. On Tuesday night, he gave up a solo home run to countryman Yoenis Cespedes, whom he faced in Cuba's Serie Nacional a few times before defecting.
Elias' name might get lost in the shuffle of Cuba's growing pool of talented stars that includes Cespedes, White Sox slugger Jose Abreu and Marlins righty Jose Fernandez, but don't sleep on him. For the year, he's 3-2 with a 3.27 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and an 8.06 K/9 ratio.
"I feel very proud," Elias said, "because we have a very small country, but there are a lot of good Cuban players, thanks to God. We all work hard and do what we have to do to get our number called."
After topping out at Double-A Jackson last year, Elias entered Spring Training with a low profile but broke camp with the team after proving his worth. Manager Lloyd McClendon noted that Elias previously threw from too many arm angles, but that the team has focused on him keeping the same arm slot.
"I really didn't even know what he looked like the first day of spring," McClendon said. "The biggest thing with him is to throw strikes. He's got quality stuff and I don't think that type of stuff will be affected by seeing teams a second or third time."
Smoak, teammates delivering in RISP situations
OAKLAND -- Justin Smoak had plenty of reasons to be excited Tuesday night. Not only did he drive in three runs during Seattle's 8-3 win over the A's, but he got to show off his wheels in the ninth inning while going from first to home on Kyle Seager's RBI double.
Listed at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and not known for his speed, Smoak couldn't help but brag to his teammates.
"Believe me," manager Lloyd McClendon said, "we heard it in the dugout."
Smoak doubled home Robinson Cano in the first before driving in two more with his ninth-inning single into center field. All three RBIs came with two outs, giving him an MLB-best 16 through Tuesday's action, while he leads the team with 20 total RBIs. Smoak has also been productive in the late stages, posting a .351 (13-for-37) average with four doubles, four homers and 12 RBIs in the seventh inning or later.
"I'm seeing it all right," Smoak said. "Just a matter of getting hits at the right time. It's part of it. Still got things to work on and trying to get better."
As a whole, the Mariners have been an opportunistic bunch. Entering Wednesday, Seattle was tied with the White Sox for the fifth-best team average (.266) with runners in scoring position.
"It's what you've got to do to win ballgames," Smoak said. "When you get guys in scoring position, got to do whatever it takes -- hit a sac fly, even a ground ball to an infielder to get a guy in -- whatever it takes. I think on this road trip we've seen that."
Saunders thriving in leadoff role
OAKLAND -- Seattle has a new leadoff man.
Rookie Abraham Almonte began the season as the starting center fielder and No. 1 hitter for manager Lloyd McClendon, but Michael Saunders has taken over the role lately with sterling results. In his first eight games as the leadoff man this year, Saunders has batted .343 (11-for-32), while the team is 6-2 in those contests.
So does McClendon think those two things are connected?
"Sure," the skipper said. "I said it [Tuesday] -- you don't argue with success and you certainly don't mess with it. He's done a nice job for whatever the reason is, I don't know what it is. But he's done a nice job and he'll stay there."
Though Saunders went 0-for-4 in Tuesday's 8-3 win over the A's, he played a big role in the four-run ninth-inning rally. Saunders laid down a nice bunt in front of Oakland reliever Jim Johnson and moved to second after the errant throw to first went into the outfield. The floodgates opened from there as Saunders and three more of his teammates touched home to put the game out of reach.
Saunders spent the start of the season batting anywhere from fourth to eighth, but said he hasn't changed his approach at the plate as the leadoff man.
"Not trying to do too much," Saunders said. "I'm seeing the ball well right now and when I do get a good pitch to hit, I feel like I'm putting a good swing on it."
Alex Espinoza is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.