PITTSBURGH — Aaron Judge felt like he was “stuck” on 29 home runs for “a while.”
Of course, “a while” is a relative term when it comes to the New York Yankees slugger. What Judge considered a drought of sorts was in reality a span of four games.
One mighty swing put Judge back on track and helped the Yankees start the second half of their schedule with a bang.
Judge sent a laser to the seats in left field in the eighth inning for his third career grand slam – and 30th homer of the season, most in the majors – as New York drilled the Pittsburgh Pirates 16-0 on Wednesday night to split their two-game interleague set.
Aaron Hicks added a grand slam of his own an inning later on a night when the Yankees hit six home runs in all to push their team total to a major league-leading 139.
“Games like this help guys get rolling,” Judge said. “Guys had good at-bats, put a couple of balls in the gaps and all of a sudden guys take off for a week or two or a whole month or even the rest of the season.”
It’s a zone Judge has seemingly been in since opening day. Hours after Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner admitted it may take a record contract to keep Judge from hitting free agency next winter, the outfielder looked worth every penny. He finished with three of New York’s season-high 22 hits while becoming the first Yankees player to reach the 30-homer plateau before the All-Star break twice in his career.
It’s a number that left New York manager Aaron Boone shaking his head.
“It’s hard for me to relate to that,” said Boone, who never hit more than 26 home runs in a season during his 12-year career. “So it’s been pretty impressive, whatever – halfway in here – the kind of baseball he’s playing. Obviously the power has been right there.”
Hicks cleared the bases in the ninth when he went deep against Pirates utility infielder Josh VanMeter, who was making his third relief appearance of the season.
“It feels like any one of those guys could hit a homer at any point,” VanMeter said. “You just go out there and throw strikes and whatever happens happens, really. You’re not out there competing. You’re just trying to save some pitchers’ arms and pick them up.”
Severino (5-3) allowed four hits over six dominant innings, striking out three without a walk to pick up his first victory in more than a month. The right-hander retired 12 straight and 18 of the final 20 hitters he faced after giving up a single to Ke'Bryan Hayes and a double to Bryan Reynolds to begin the bottom of the first.
The victory ended a two-game skid for New York, which began the second half of the season with the same recipe that carried the Yankees to the best record in the majors and the second-best start in franchise history through 81 games: dominant starting pitching and plenty of power.
After using some small ball to take a 2-0 lead in the fourth thanks in part to a hit-and-run and a stolen base, Donaldson and Gallo took Mitch Keller (2-6) deep twice in the span of three pitches in the sixth to break it open.
New York was just getting started, adding one in the seventh, then five in the eighth and six in the ninth to improve to 3-3 on a four-city, 10-game road trip.
“It’s tough to hold this lineup down,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “You don’t see it happen very often. They score a bunch of runs and (Judge) is the catalyst for that.”
Reynolds had two of Pittsburgh’s four hits but the Pirates could muster little against Severino and three New York relievers.
Keller worked in and out of trouble over six innings, allowing four runs on a season-high 10 hits with a walk and seven strikeouts. He was long gone by the time New York overwhelmed Pittsburgh’s overtaxed bullpen.
Yankees: Held 1B Anthony Rizzo out of the lineup for a second straight game due to back stiffness. Boone indicated Rizzo would likely miss Thursday’s game in Boston, too.
Pirates: OF Greg Allen (hamstring) was scheduled to begin a rehabilitation assignment at Class A Bradenton. Allen, claimed off waivers from the Yankees last fall, hasn’t played all season.
ON THE MOVE
Yankees: Head to Boston for the first time this season when they begin a four-game weekend series at Fenway Park on Thursday night. Gerrit Cole (7-2, 2.99 ERA) faces Boston’s Josh Winckowski (3-2, 3.12) in the opener.
Pirates: Play a day-night doubleheader in Cincinnati on Thursday.