By ALAN FERGUSON
(AP) -- Tim Lincecum is showing signs that the worst stretch of his career might be over. A better performance against the NL East-leading Washington Nationals could offer further confirmation.
The San Francisco Giants right-hander hasn't won back-to-back starts in two months or defeated the Nationals in four years, a pair of streaks Lincecum could end Tuesday night as he tries to shut down a red-hot lineup.
The opener of this three-game set in Washington is the first matchup of the season between the current owners of the NL's two best records. They meet again Aug. 13-15 in San Francisco.
The only games Lincecum won all season going into his outing Wednesday were consecutive starts April 23 and 28 versus the Mets and San Diego. He halted that drought and played a part in the Giants' run of 36 consecutive scoreless innings - the team's longest streak since moving to San Francisco - by pitching seven frames in a 3-0 victory over the Dodgers.
The two-time NL Cy Young Award winner tied a season high with eight strikeouts, having also done so five days earlier as he gave up three runs and three hits over six innings in a 5-4 victory at Oakland.
Those performances have given the West-leading Giants (45-35) optimism that Lincecum (3-8, 5.60 ERA) has put behind a career-worst, 10-game winless stretch in which he went 0-6 with a 6.23 ERA.
"He carried himself with so much more confidence the last couple of outings," manager Bruce Bochy told the team's website. "The confidence factor is so important. He realized how good he is."
Lincecum, though, is 0-2 with a 5.87 ERA in four games versus the Nationals since his lone victory against them June 6, 2008. His first time facing them this season doesn't appear to be coming at an ideal time considering Washington is hitting .345 with 13 homers in its last six games, averaging 8.5 runs.
The Nationals (45-32) went 4-2 in that span to cap a 10-game road trip, ending it with a 3 1/2-game division lead over the second-place New York Mets.
Ryan Zimmerman continued his hot hitting by going 3 for 5 with a home run and a season-high four RBIs in an 8-4 win over Atlanta on Sunday.
The third baseman is batting .378 with three homers and 13 RBIs over his last eight games following a 4-for-40 slump. He's hit .346 in his last 14 matchups with San Francisco but is 1 for 7 all-time against Lincecum.
"I think I'm healthier than I was before," said Zimmerman, who was hitting .218 with three homers and 22 RBIs before his hot streak. "You have a few good games in a row and your confidence gets going, and that's the name of the game. We've got to get some confidence, build momentum and just roll with it."
Ian Desmond also is rolling, batting .440 in the last six games with two homers, seven doubles and seven RBIs.
The Nationals hope their hot hitting carries over for Jordan Zimmermann (4-6, 2.77), who received some much-needed run support Wednesday to post his first win since May 22.
The right-hander gave up one run in seven innings of an 11-5 victory at Colorado after going 0-2 with a 3.66 ERA over his previous five outings. Zimmermann got three runs or fewer from his teammates in each of those starts.
He didn't need much help to beat the Giants last season, going 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA in two matchups. The right-hander gave up two runs over six innings in a 5-2 victory at Washington on May 1, 2011.
The Nationals won three of four during that series after losing eight of the 10 previous matchups in the nation's capital.
Updated July 2, 2012