NEW YORK -- The Tigers took Brayan Villarreal in their bullpen to start last season because manager Jim Leyland saw a potentially valuable power reliever who had the chance to break out. He still sees that potential, but he's having a hard time getting it out of him.
The nerves, Leyland said, are blocking him, which is why Leyland talked with Villarreal on Saturday morning and told him to just relax.
"Obviously, there's something going on where he's a little more relaxed [in Toledo]," Leyland said. "I talked to him today: Just relax, just do the same thing up here that you do down there. I mean, his equipment's plenty good enough, but for whatever reason up here, he's been a little erratic with his control."
Villarreal took the 7-6 loss against the Yankees on Friday night for a ninth inning in which he allowed the winning run to reach base and round the bases without the benefit of a hit, or even a ball in play. Back-to-back one-out walks, a wild pitch and a passed ball decided it.
Compare that to Villarreal's five games this April with the Mud Hens, holding opponents to two runs on four hits over nine innings with six walks and 13 strikeouts.
The fastball is the same 97-mph power pitch that impressed Leyland and coaches last year and this spring. Where it was going Friday was anyone's guess.
"The potential is there to be a very good Major League pitcher," Leyland said, "but in order to do that, he's going to have to harness that control a little bit. How long does it take? When will it come? Will it come? I can't answer that. But I think the ability to have a mental picture [of the game regardless of the surroundings] for him would be very good.
"It's no different up here. I mean, it is different up here, but as far as throwing the ball over the plate, at least you're giving yourself a chance. In last night's case, he just didn't give himself a chance."
Fister appears ready for rehab assignment
NEW YORK -- What looked like a lengthy absence for Tigers starter Doug Fister might be ending shortly. In fact, if his rehab start for Triple-A Toledo goes well next week, it might not be long at all.
"It looks like, if everything goes right, he should be back real soon," manager Jim Leyland said Saturday evening.
Fister, who is recovering from a strain in his left side, threw a second bullpen session Saturday afternoon, this one longer than the 50-pitch session he threw on Thursday, and said he felt good. Assuming he still feels that way Sunday morning, he'll go out on a rehab assignment with the Mud Hens, who are at home all next week.
The Tigers aren't saying what will happen after that, whether his rehab would be only one start. Still, the difference in tone was noticeable. What had been cautious words from Leyland and Fister about a timetable now sounds like a path with the end in sight.
"I'm trying to not overdo it, but I feel really good," Fister said. "I feel very strong. I'm trying to take it slow, but at the same time, it feels very good, and I'm just trying to work my way into it."
Raburn out of lineup with tight hamstring
NEW YORK -- A day after Ryan Raburn got his shot to hold down the Tigers' starting second-base job, Raburn was out of the lineup, replaced by Ramon Santiago on Saturday. But it was a health issue, not a performance one.
Raburn left Friday's 7-6 loss to the Yankees in the seventh inning after his right hamstring tightened up on him in the sixth. It was enough of a concern that they held him out of Saturday's starting lineup, though Raburn said Saturday morning he was hoping he could loosen it up enough that he could pinch-hit.
Raburn said the hamstring tightened up when he was picking up speed heading into third base on Austin Jackson's double.
"It's one of those [injuries] where I think it's going to be fine quick," manager Jim Leyland said, "but if you pushed it, then you might do something that I'd be sorry for, if he pulled something.
"Again, it doesn't appear to be anything serious, but we went through that with [Andy] Dirks a few more days than I thought we would."
If Raburn can't start Sunday's series finale at Yankee Stadium, Leyland said he could start Danny Worth against left-hander CC Sabathia. But if Raburn's good to go, he will go. And while Leyland understands the consternation over Raburn's slow start, he sees a good player he's trying to get going.
"I'm in his corner. I have been," Leyland said. "I mean, there's a time like anything else [where time runs out]. You give people opportunities and then you come to a point, but I'm not going to come to a game total on that or a certain amount of at-bats. You just want to get people out there, let them relax a little bit and see what happens."
Leyland giving hot-hitting Eldred his shot
NEW YORK -- Jim Leyland is going to give Brad Eldred a shot to show he can take his hot start from Triple-A Toledo and translate it to the big leagues. But Leyland doesn't need a scouting report on what to expect from him.
"One thing that's very obvious: He knows what that bat's for," Leyland said. "He's going to swing it. When he centers it, it goes a long way, and sometimes he's going to miss it. That's basically what it is.
"Basically, we had one of the hottest hitters, maybe ever, in the Minor Leagues. Take a shot. Bring him up here and run him out there. I'm not going to put a timetable on it, but I think you run him out there until you think that he can or can't do it."
Eldred continued his hot start from an average standpoint with two hits in Friday's 7-6 loss to the Yankees, but nothing close to a home run. He was back in the starting lineup Saturday.
"If you're ever pulling for somebody, you're pulling for him because he's a great kid," Leyland said. "You like to see good things happen to guys like that."
Kelly, Dirks to fill in for Young in left field
NEW YORK -- While Delmon Young sits on the Major League Baseball restricted list, Don Kelly and Andy Dirks will split time in left field, manager Jim Leyland said Saturday morning.
Kelly started Friday's series opener against the Yankees. Dirks, who started Saturday and opened the scoring with a three-run homer, is coming off a week lost to a left hamstring strain but appears fine to play as often as the Tigers need him.
How long, and how often will depend partly on Young's situation. However, Brad Eldred's presence at designated hitter will be just as big of a factor, since it takes away the option of starting Dirks and Young in the same game.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.