Their returns came in a simulated game, but the encouragement was real. What it means for the Tigers down the stretch this season and beyond is still up to management to decide.
"I think both of them want to get into a game," Leyland said, "but I think both of them know there's a process, and we'll see what happens."
Though Garcia pitched against Willis' former team, the Marlins, twice last season, the two never faced each other in a real game. Tuesday's simulated outing had them going back to back against a group of five Tigers hitters. Considering the situation, their biggest competition was themselves, trying to fight through their respective issues. Still, their performances at times seemed like a tit-for-tat over the course of four innings.
Garcia sent down the side in order in one inning, shattering Jeff Larish's bat on a line drive toward second before sending down Mike Hessman swinging at a slider that dropped on him at the last minute. Willis came back in the bottom of the inning and recovered from his one walk with back-to-back strikeouts, sending down Dane Sardinha on a checked swing before overpowering Larish on a high fastball.
Willis topped out at 94 mph on his fastball and regularly hit 91, according to Leyland. His delivery, Leyland said, was "much more controlled."
"I'm very happy," he said of Willis' 72-pitch performance. "He was tentative at the beginning, and then he was free and easy."
Leyland attributed that, in part, to more confidence as the outing went on. Willis attributed it to being loose.
"I'm just trying to have fun," Willis said.
Garcia's 55 pitches included fastballs in the mid-80s, the same or slightly lower than the 86-87 mph he hit regularly in his start last Thursday for Triple-A Toledo. His other pitches, however, seem to be close to regular-season form.
"Freddy was exactly what I expected," Leyland said. "What I see from Freddy is, there's no restriction with his arm in his delivery. He's got great extension."
That leaves Garcia's arm strength as the biggest hurdle, but one that can only be addressed through more work and patience as he works his way back from last year's shoulder surgery. But as Leyland pointed out, Garcia was winning two years ago with a fastball in the mid-80s and an abundance of guile.
That's partly why he seems relatively confident as he progresses, whether or not he pitches in the big leagues in September. He's already ahead of the normal schedule for pitchers who tear their labrum, and he's far enough along where he could conceivably retire Major League hitters.
"Just continue to pitch," Garcia said. "I need to throw innings. If I stay home, I'll never get stronger."
The next handful of innings for both pitchers will come in another simulated outing when the Tigers are home next Monday. They'll wait the extra day in order to have the outing at home rather than during a getaway day on the road.
After that, Leyland said, "We'll have a decision to make."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less