Nationals-Indians preview

CLEVELAND — The Washington Nationals and the Cleveland Indians, two first-place teams heading in opposite directions on the map but not in the standings, play each other Tuesday night at Progressive Field in the opener of a two-game series.

Thanks to the All-Star break and Cleveland hosting the Republican National Convention, the Indians haven't played a home game since July 10. The Indians have played 19 of their last 26 games on the road, but 20 of their next 25 games will be at Progressive Field.

The Nationals, who have played 19 of their last 23 games at home, are set to begin a 10-game road trip that will take them to Cleveland, San Francisco and Arizona.

The Indians hold a 5 1/2-game lead over the second-place Detroit Tigers in the American League Central, while Washington leads the National League East by five games over both the New York Mets and the Miami Marlins.

Tuesday night's pitching matchup features Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez and Indians right-hander Danny Salazar.

In 19 starts this year, Gonzalez is 6-8 with a 4.53 ERA, but he was much better than that in his past four starts, going 3-1 with a 3.80 ERA.

Gonzalez will be making his second career start vs. Cleveland. The first came in a 2-1 Nationals loss on June 14, 2013, when Gonzalez pitched seven innings, giving up one run on three hits with four walks and eight strikeouts.

Salazar, a first-time American League All-Star this year, is 11-3 and ranks third in the AL with a 2.75 ERA. This will be his first career appearance against Washington. Salazar hasn't lost a game since May 22, going 7-0 with a 3.16 ERA in his past nine starts.

Starting pitching hasn't been a problem for the Indians, whose rotation leads the league with a 3.63 ERA. The bullpen is another matter. Cleveland relievers rank seventh in the league in ERA at 3.65.

The Indians' bullpen inconsistency is reflected by the team's seven walk-off losses this season, the second most in the majors. It also is the reason Cleveland is rumored to be engaged in trade talks with other teams for back-of-the-bullpen help. Closer Cody Allen gave up a game-ending home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in a 5-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday.

With less than a week to go until the trade deadline, it would not be a surprise to see the Indians make a deal for a reliever this week, although manager Terry Francona says that doesn't mean the organization is disappointed in the in-house options.

“Sometimes everybody clamors for bringing guys in from the outside, but you might have the guy you need right in the organization, and it's somebody you really like,” Francona said.

The Nationals on Tuesday will welcome back first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who is expected to be activated off the disabled list. Zimmerman has been sidelined since July 7 with a left rib cage strain. In a three-game rehab stint with Class A Potomac, he hit .417 (5-for-12) with a home run and five RBI.

“I feel good. It was good to go down there and get some at bats,” Zimmerman told MLB.com. “I'll be ready to come back, help this team in the second half and get going.”

The Indians are just 4-5 since the All-Star break, all of those games coming on a road trip to face the Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals and Baltimore. The Nationals are likewise 4-5 since the break, but all those games came at home, against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.