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Lester punches out seven Tigers over 6 2/3

The Red Sox are slumping. So, too, is Jon Lester.

On Sunday, the Boston lefty is looking to put an end to both of those trends as the Sox try to avoid a sweep against the first-place Washington Nationals.

Lester (3-4, 4.64 ERA) gets the ball looking to snap a three-start winless streak. He has allowed at least four runs in five of his last six starts.

Washington's starter, Jordan Zimmermann, is headed in quite the opposite direction. He has lasted at least six innings in all 11 of his starts this season.

Zimmermann (3-5, 2.82 ERA) was sharp in his last outing on Tuesday, allowing just two solo home runs and five hits while striking out five in a no-decision against the Mets.

"I was just attacking hitters and mixing all the pitches," Zimmermann said after the start. "I was able to get some quick outs on the ground-ball double play. I was kind of breezing through the first couple innings there, and then the sixth just kind of hurt a little bit."

That's when Zimmermann allowed both of the home runs. It marked the second consecutive start and the third in his last four during which he allowed at least two homers.

For Boston, shortstop Mike Aviles has been a bit of a rock in the infield this season. The Red Sox have gone through plenty of changes on the diamond with Kevin Youkilis, Adrian Gonzalez and Will Middlebrooks all shuffling through the corner positions.

Meanwhile, Aviles has nailed down the shortstop spot, a position once thought to be a weakness for the club. Aviles has been much improved with the glove this year and is second on the team with 36 RBIs and third with eight homers.

"I really didn't know much about Mike," first-year manager Bobby Valentine said. "I watched him his rookie year sporadically in Kansas City because a friend of his was working for me at the time actually. So I liked him as a player, but I never really knew much about him.

"I'm pleasantly surprised at his consistency in the field, his offensive ability to drive the ball and drive different pitches, his intensity and his enjoyment for the game. He really loves the game of baseball. I like all those things."

Nationals: Eckstein wowed by Harper
Outfielder Bryce Harper has impressed hitting coach Rick Eckstein with the way he studies pitchers and the plan he takes to the plate each at-bat.

Harper is hitting .282 with six homers and 17 RBIs in 142 at-bats.

"He is a very talented young man with a great head on his shoulders, especially for being 19," Eckstein said. "Some of the questions that he asks and his thought process is so advanced."

Red Sox: Byrd designated for assignment to make room for Matsuzaka
The Red Sox designated outfielder Marlon Byrd for assignment in order to make room for Saturday starter Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The Red Sox acquired Byrd from the Cubs in a late-April trade in which Boston sent pitching prospect Michael Bowden to Chicago.

"Marlon came here and kind of saved the day, and now he'll more than likely be with another team. Hopefully, it's not in our division competing against us," manager Bobby Valentine said. "He did a good job while he was here. We just needed room for a starting pitcher."

Worth noting
• This is the latest into a year the Red Sox have been in last place since September 1997.

• Lester is 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in two career starts against the Nationals. He has 16 strikeouts in 12 innings.

• After committing just 31 errors through the first 56 games, Washington made three errors in its victory on Saturday.

• The Nats are in the midst of a string of 32 straight games against teams from the two East divisions. So far they are 11-8 in that stretch.

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