Tigers visit Nationals in battle of contenders

In what could possibly be a World Series preview, the Detroit Tigers and Washington Nationals clash Tuesday night in the opener of a short two-game set from Nationals Park.

The Tigers look to keep rolling when they enter the nation's capital and have won four straight and 10 of 12 games. They completed a four-game sweep of the Houston Astros with Sunday's 9-0 victory and outscored the 'Stros, 26-2 in the last two installments of the series.

In the finale at Minute Maid Park, ace Justin Verlander hurled seven shutout innings, struck out nine and allowed only two hits for the win. Verlander flirted with a no-hitter and threw 116 pitches, 80 for strikes.

"I really wasn't thinking about the pitch count," Verlander said. "It really is a non-issue at that point. It's kind of out of my hands. I was early. But I started getting in the sixth, seventh inning, I wasn't thinking about it. You can't play the what-if, should-have, could-have game."

Darin Downs tossed the final two frames to preserve the win.

Verlander benefited from four home runs by Andy Dirks, Prince Fielder, Brayan Pena and Omar Infante. Dirks was 4-for-4 with three runs scored Fielder ended with three hits and four RBI for the Tigers, who are one game ahead of Kansas City for the AL Central lead.

Anibal Sanchez gets the call for the defending AL champions on Tuesday and he has lost two of his last three starts. In a 6-2 loss to Minnesota last Wednesday, Sanchez gave up a season high three runs in six innings and fanned nine. He is 3-2 in six starts and his earned run average went from 1.34 to 1.82.

Sanchez, though, has dominated the Nationals from his days with the Marlins and the right-hander is 8-0 with a 1.97 ERA in 19 starts against them.

Washington won a series in Pittsburgh over the weekend and posted a 6-2 win over the Pirates on Sunday behind home runs from Tyler Moore and Danny Espinosa. Both players had three RBI for the Nationals, winners in four of their last five games.

Gio Gonzalez picked up the win and pitched six innings of two-run ball, while scattering five hits and striking out five. Relievers Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano tossed a scoreless inning apiece.

Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper was ejected early after arguing a called third strike and Roger Bernadina replaced him. Bernadina was 2-for-4 with a run scored.

"It's just something that happened. I'm glad it didn't cause the outcome of the game where we are losing," Harper said of the first-inning ejection. "We got the 'W' today and things like that happen."

Nats veteran outfielder Jayson Werth missed his third straight game and is dealing with a balky right hamstring. Werth could return Tuesday and could also just wait until Friday's series with the Chicago Cubs.

Jordan Zimmermann has been the ace of the Washington staff so far and gets the ball again Tuesday. Zimmermann is 5-1 with a 1.64 earned run average in six starts and has won back-to-back outings, including last Wednesday's 2-0 win at Atlanta. He held the Braves to two hits over eight scoreless innings and struck out a season-best eight batters.

"He's obviously got everything working right now," Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "He's pitching up in the zone, down in the zone, in and out, he's really mixing it up with his breaking balls, he's throwing breaking balls for strikes. He's got it working. Even during the game, he keeps it loose. He's really fun to work with."

Zimmermann hasn't given up a run in each of his last two starts, spanning 17 innings, and has allowed only two runs in the previous three trips to the mound. The right-hander has won all three of his starts at Nationals Park this season and will face Detroit for the first time.

The last time the Tigers and Nationals met Detroit swept a three-game series at home in 2010. Washington lost all three matchups as the host in 2007.