What's Next: First-place Indians to be tested

Rangers look to stay on top in AL West; Mets continue road trip in Pittsburgh

What's Next: First-place Indians to be tested

We're well into June and the week ahead marks the beginning of yet another important baseball countdown. As of Sunday, there will be only one month until the 87th All-Star Game is played at Petco Park in San Diego.

Teams want to get hot before the Midsummer Classic, to gain momentum quickly and ride it all the way to October. And a look at the standings shows us what's next: pivotal matchups between clubs that are in contention and would like to stay there, and the potential for seriously high drama as the temperature continues to climb.

It's one big week for the Indians, for example. They're the hottest team in baseball after sweeping the Royals over the weekend to win their fifth game in a row and take over the top spot in the American League Central.

The Royals remain a game and a half out of first place, and the White Sox sit three games back. Chicago also gets a boost this week as newly acquired right-hander James Shields makes his debut Wednesday against Max Scherzer and the Nationals.

The Indians have other challenges ahead, with a four-game set on the road against the contending Mariners in Seattle and a three-game weekender in Anaheim against the Angels.

"We don't want to be anywhere else [other than first place]," Indians first baseman Mike Napoli said.

"But it doesn't mean anything right now. It's the place you want to be, but we need to continue playing good ball as a team and things should take care of itself. We're going to try to continue that and go from there."

It's likely that the AL West-leading Texas Rangers feel the same way. They took care of business over the weekend by sweeping their closest pursuer at the moment, the Mariners, and now they have a huge week ahead.

Texas, looking to defend its division title, stays home at Globe Life Park and hosts the resurgent Houston Astros in a four-game Texas tussle. Houston beat Oakland on Sunday and has won three in a row and eight of its last 10. Despite all their early-season woes, the Astros are only seven games out of first place.

"We're playing our brand of baseball and being rewarded for it with some wins," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Sunday. "We've been playing good baseball. There's nothing we can't do on the field. We have a lot of confidence now."

The Orioles have had confidence all year, and they've been at or near the top of the AL East all year. That trend continued into Monday after a Sunday win over the Yankees sealed a series win and kept Baltimore in a virtual tie with Boston for the division lead.

Wieters' two-run go-ahead single

Now the Orioles will head into a very challenging week, with three at home vs. the Royals and then four on the road against the Blue Jays, who are now 31-27 and only two games out of first place.

"They should take some pride in the finished product today, but Kansas City -- who had a real good year last year -- we've got to be ready," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.

"They won't dwell on it long. We tried real hard here to get to the point where beating certain teams isn't what you make it out to be. You've got to beat them because it's an opportunity and they count. Not because of who they are and how many fans they have in the stands. Our tickets are a lot more affordable."

Showalter is one of many big league managers getting ready for a very important next seven days.

Terry Collins, skipper of the defending National League champion Mets, will see his club head to Pittsburgh to play the Pirates from Monday to Wednesday, and the first game of the series pits Mets starter Steven Matz against former Mets starter Jon Niese, who now toes the slab for the Pirates.

Matz is 6-0 with a 1.74 ERA in his last seven starts, which makes him the best pitcher in New York's vaunted rotation for the moment. And Niese, who was traded in the offseason for second baseman Neil Walker, has done just fine, going 5-2 with a 4.36 ERA as a Pirate. Walker hasn't been shabby either. Through Sunday, he had 13 homers and an OPS of .853.

Fans sport Walker jerseys

"Neil's come in and played absolutely great for us," Collins said. "I know Jon's gotten off to a good start for them. So I'm sure both teams are happy with the way it's turned out."

Elsewhere around the league, there will be intrigue fitting of early June.

The White Sox, who started out the season sizzling and trying to run away with the AL Central, have cooled off a bit, but with home series vs. Washington and Kansas City, they'll have a chance to gain a lot of confidence moving forward.

The Red Sox, deadlocked at the top of the East with Baltimore, get a chance to strut their stuff by the San Francisco Bay in a rare two-game Interleague matchup at AT&T Park on Tuesday and Wednesday.

And the Giants, who are finding their even-year groove and leading the NL West, will spend the weekend hosting their perennial archrivals, the Dodgers, although they'll have to do it without Hunter Pence, whose imminent surgery for a torn hamstring could keep him out for eight weeks.

"The good news is that there's going to be a lot of season left to play when I come back," Pence said. "So there's a lot to look forward to and that is exciting."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.