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Two of baseball's biggest stars are closing in on major home run marks

Albert Pujols (left) has been a superlative hitter over 22 seasons, putting him near 700 career home runs. Aaron Judge (right) is just shy of breaking the American League home run record.
Sarah Stier/Getty Images; Elsa/Getty Images
Albert Pujols (left) has been a superlative hitter over 22 seasons, putting him near 700 career home runs. Aaron Judge (right) is just shy of breaking the American League home run record.

Updated September 21, 2022 at 11:03 AM ET

With baseball's regular season coming to a close in two weeks, all eyes are on two players – one player in his prime and the other a long-time great in his final season – each inching closer to major home run milestones.

The American League's single-season home run record has stood since 1961, surviving even through the steroid-fueled home run frenzy of the late 90s and early 2000s. In two decades, no player has come as close to breaking it as the New York Yankees all-star outfielder Aaron Judge has this year.

And Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals, nearing the end of his final season in 22 years of major league play, is just shy of 700 career home runs, a number so high that only three MLB players have ever reached it.

The regular season ends in early October, leaving both players with over a dozen games to accomplish the feats.

Aaron Judge ties 'Babe' Ruth for second-highest home run mark

On Tuesday night, Judge hit his 60th home run of the season, firing a 430-foot shot off the Pittsburgh Pirates' pitcher Wil Crowe. Judge has now tied George Herman "Babe" Ruth for the second-highest number of home runs in a season by a player in the American League.

Judge is now just one dinger shy of the AL home run record, set at 61 by fellow Yankee Roger Maris back in 1961.

As of Wednesday, Judge has 15 more regular season games to hit one (to tie) or two (to surpass) more homers. Ever the modest team player, Judge doesn't talk much about the mark. On Sunday, he demurred that chasing records has "never been [his] focus."

"The numbers, they're just numbers. I'm focused on doing what I can to be a good teammate, to help the team win. If that means hitting a homer, then it means hitting a homer," Judge said.

An important note: While Judge is within reach of the AL record, the all-time single-season record set by Barry Bonds in 2001 is much higher, at 73 homers. But that record, along with the next five spots on the list (all of which were set by Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire), was set during baseball's steroids era. Many players during that time, including Bonds, Sosa and McGwire, were suspected of, or admitted to, using performance-enhancing drugs.

Judge could also become just the 11th player in AL/NL history to win the "Triple Crown" – in other words, to finish the season leading his league in three separate stats: batting average, home runs and runs batted in (which was first recorded as an official stat in 1920).

Judge is currently #1 in all three: He's got healthy leads in both HRs and RBIs, and as of Wednesday, his .316 batting average has edged out second place by .001.

Albert Pujols and 700 home runs

This one isn't a "record," per se – but still, the 700 home run club is perhaps baseball's most exclusive fraternity. Only three players in MLB history have hit more than 700 homers, and their names are familiar to even the most half-hearted of baseball viewers: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.

This one has been a long time in the making. Pujols has been playing in the major leagues since 2001, and he's been a superlative hitter for his whole career.

Before returning to the Cardinals for this season, Pujols, the oldest player in baseball, announced that this year – his 22nd season – would be his last.

Coming into the season with 679 career homers, his odds of reaching 700 seemed within reach. And now, he's closing in: Since the middle of last month, Pujols has hit 12 homers, including his 698th in a game against the Cincinnati Reds on Friday.

Even opposing coaches are expressing their admiration for Pujols. "It's hard not to be moved by it, even when you're on the wrong side of it," said Reds manager David Bell after Friday's game.

As of Wednesday, the Cardinals have 13 games left to play in the regular season. Pujols needs two more homers to hit 700.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.