CHICAGO -- Jon Lester wanted nothing more than to raise his cap to a packed Wrigley Field when he walked off the mound for the final time at the ballpark he has called home for six years. The circumstances surrounding the 2020 season erased that possibility.
On Wednesday night, Lester spoke slowly and deliberately as he searched for the words to summarize his feelings in this moment. When the Cubs put the final touches on a 3-2, 10-inning win over Cleveland, they also completed what could be Lester's final game at the Friendly Confines.
"We don't know what the future holds," Lester said. "A lot of emotions going into tonight."
It was fitting then that Lester was facing Cleveland -- the team he helped beat in the 2016 World Series to deliver the Cubs' first title since 1908. It was even fitting that the game went 10 innings, given that Game 7 of the '16 Fall Classic lasted the same number of frames.
Lester lasted only five innings on Wednesday night, as the Tribe was making hard contact and manager David Ross felt turning to the bullpen was best.
"That's a tough one as a manager," said Ross, who has still caught more of Lester's career innings that anyone. "And pulling a buddy out, and with a low pitch count. I just thought it was a lot of hard-hit balls there."
Lester admitted that his struggles on the hill Wednesday may have been related to everything that was on his mind.
"Maybe the effort was a little bit too much," said Lester. "Trying to go out and maybe be a little bit too perfect. I don't know."
The 36-year-old Lester is in the final season of the six-year, $155 million contract he struck with the Cubs at the Winter Meetings ahead of the 2015 campaign. The veteran's $25 million team option for '21 is not going to vest, meaning he would be in line for a $10 million buyout.
The reason this may have been Lester's final home start is tied to the fact that the Cubs only have three games left at Wrigley Field this weekend. Chicago currently projects to host the best-of-three Wild Card Series to start the postseason, but Lester is not guaranteed to start in that set.
Then, the National League playoffs will move into a bubble in Houston and Arlington.
Lester said the absence of fans made Wednesday harder for him.
"I think that's probably the most frustrating part for me," he said. "To have an empty stadium, it's not really how I envisioned possibly my last start here. I'm not going to sit here and say woe is me. But I didn't think six years would go this fast."
Cubs veteran outfielder Jason Heyward said it was important for Lester's teammates to show him the respect he has earned, especially given the unique circumstances this season.
"You just absolutely have to acknowledge that it could be [his last start in Chicago]," Heyward said. "He's earned that and some. And it really, really, really, really is unfortunate that we don't have fans here this year to help be part of that. Again, this is something he's earned since he set foot in the big leagues. It goes without saying, since he set foot in Chicago."
Over six seasons, Lester has gone 76-43 with a 3.61 ERA in 169 starts for the Cubs, making two All-Star teams ('16 and '18) and finishing as the NL Cy Young Award runner-up once ('16). In Chicago's historic '16 season, the lefty went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, and then he spun a 2.02 ERA in the playoffs.
Through 10 starts this season, Lester has gone 2-2 with a 4.91 ERA.
Lester shared the NL Championship Series MVP honors with Javier Báez in '16 after going 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA in two starts against the Dodgers. The lefty logged three innings in Chicago's Game 7 triumph over the Indians.
The Cubs would love nothing more than to get Lester another ring.
"This dude's been a rock here," Heyward said. "We hope we can do a lot more for him here in the near future."