NEW YORK — Aaron Judge circled the bases for the 50th time this season , breaking Mark McGwire’s major league record for home runs by a rookie, and returned to the Yankees dugout to exchange handshakes, hugs and high-fives with excited teammates.
And then, he walked up the steps and back onto the field.
Embarrassed by the attention, he managed four short waves with his right hand before heading back to the bench just three seconds later.
"They kind of told me: ‘You got to go out there. You got to go out there,"’ he would later recall. "First curtain call. I hope it was a good one."
Judge had his second straight two-homer game in an 11-3 rout of Kansas City on Monday. On an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, the Yankees won for the 16th time in 22 games during a playoff push that earned no worse than a wild card.
The 6-foot-7, 25-year-old slugger tied McGwire’s 1987 mark with a two-run drive to right-centre off Jakob Junis (8-3) in the third inning that put New York ahead 3-0, driving a 93 mph high fastball 389 feet about a half-dozen rows into the right field seats.
Judge pulled a hanging changeup 408 feet for a parabolic solo shot that bounced to the left of the visiting bullpen against Trevor Cahill in the seventh. It was his fourth multihomer game this month and seventh this year.
He was hitting .329 with 30 homers and 66 RBIs when he won the All-Star Home Run Derby.
"The way he started, I thought he was going to hit 60, 70," Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez said through a translator.
But as if zapped by Kryptonite, Judge slumped to a .179 average with seven homers and 16 RBIs from the start of the second half through Aug. 31, a whiff-a-thon that included 67 strikeouts in 44 games.
"I saw frustration," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I didn’t see him getting down. I never saw him stop working. I never saw him not believe in himself."
Judge revived to hit .307 with 13 homers and 26 RBIs in a stunning September, leaving him with a .283 average, 108 RBIs, an AL-leading 120 walks and a big league-high 203 strikeouts.
"Everybody’s going say, oh, the strikeouts. But I think if I’m an owner or a GM, I’ll take 300 strikeouts with the year he’s putting up," Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier said.
Judge has homered against every AL opponent and his total is second in the majors to the 57 of Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton. Judge is a contender for AL MVP , along with Houston’s Jose Altuve and Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez.
"I’d rather be in a good position in the playoffs and holding up a World Series trophy than an AL MVP trophy," Judge said.
Boston’s Fred Lynn in 1975 and Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 are the only winners of the rookie and MVP awards in the same year.
"We can honestly say that we’re in this spot because of him," CC Sabathia said. "I think that’s what an MVP is."
Judge has 90-degree power, pulling 22 homers to left, hitting 13 to centre and sending 15 opposite-field shots to right, according to MLB’s Statcast. His teammates never let him get down during the big slump.
"They kept pushing me, kept motivating me: ‘Hey, man, you’re going to get out of this. It’s baseball. Keep doing your thing,"’ he remembered, speaking after the game in a pinstriped thumbs-down T-shirt.
After striking out 42 times in 84 at-bats during last year’s late-season call-up, Judge didn’t even know he had won the right field job until three days before the Yankees’ opener.
"He’s handled it with grace and humility, and he’s never lost who he is and his ability to change someone’s day," Girardi said. "He’s a natural-born leader for me. … It’s almost like he’s a big brother. He watches out over everyone. He waits for the players to come off the field. You got the whole package."
Greg Bird added a two-run homer in the sixth , his seventh home run this season and fourth in nine games. Sanchez followed Judge in the seventh with back-to-back homers for the third time this year , raising his total to 33.
Sabathia (13-5) took a 6-0 lead into the seventh , when Salvador Perez hit a two-run homer and Mike Moustakas chased him by going deep four pitches later. Sabathia improved to 9-0 in 11 starts this year after Yankees’ losses and 21-11 in his career against Kansas City. He allowed six hits in six-plus innings, tying Yankees great Whitey Ford with 236 wins.
New York closed within four games of AL East-leading Boston and needs one win or a Minnesota loss to clinch home field in the AL wild-card game on Oct. 3.
Kansas City trails the Twins by six games with six games left and headed to its final homestand before Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain and Moustakas can become free agents.
"I haven’t really thought about it too much yet," Moustakas said. "I think it will settle in when we get to the field."
Judge got both home-run balls back and probably will give them to his parents. He joked about Sanchez following his record-setter with a long ball.
"Maybe I should do that after every at-bat," Judge said with a smirk, "just do a little quick curtain call before Gary hits."
Yankees leadoff hitter Brett Gardner scored three times and has 94 runs, three shy of his career high. Girardi challenged him during spring training to reach 100.
Yankees: OF Aaron Hicks (oblique) had six at-bats in a simulated game at New York’s minor league complex.
Royals: LHP Jason Vargas (17-10) starts Tuesday’s homestand opener against Detroit and RHP Jordan Zimmermann (8-13).
Yankees: LHP Jordan Montgomery (8-7) starts Tuesday against Tampa Bay. RHP Luis Severino (13-6) is in line to pitch Wednesday and in the wild-card game.