'Special moment': Lester returns to Wrigley

May 18th, 2021

CHICAGO -- The largest crowd of the season at Wrigley Field rose to its feet as No. 34 took the mound. He had done so 96 times before, including five memorable playoff starts; only on Monday, he emerged from the visitors’ dugout in a navy jersey with “Nationals” displayed across his chest.

After playing the past six seasons in Chicago, Jon Lester made his highly anticipated return in the four-game series opener between the Nats and Cubs. It was a date he had noted when he signed a one-year deal with Washington on Jan. 27 -- not only to face his former teammates, but also to play in front of Cubs fans for the first time since Sept. 25, 2019.

“It was a great atmosphere here,” Lester said. “Seeing those faces was great. I think you have to have to kind of toe that fine line of trying to enjoy the moment, but at the same time, compete and try to win.”

Lester threw 5 1/3 innings and allowed five runs on eight hits (including home runs by Jason Heyward, Willson Contreras and Javier Báez) while striking out four in the Nats’ 7-3 loss on Monday night. After going through a myriad of emotions, Lester did not feel settled until the second or third inning. 

“You’re pitching against your buddies,” Lester said. “You’re pitching against guys that you grinded with for a lot of years and built relationships with. It’s just a different feeling than a playoff game or something like that.” 

Facing their longtime teammate was unique for the Cubs, too. 

“I wanted to laugh. I wanted to smile,” said Contreras. “It feels strange facing him now that he's on another team. I wish him the best. We're still really close. ... It was really good to see him back at Wrigley Field.”

In the hours leading up to Monday's reunion, Cubs manager David Ross ran into Lester on the main concourse at Wrigley Field as the pitcher arrived. That gave Ross a chance to quickly catch up with his longtime batterymate and give him a long-awaited hug.

"I love that freakin' guy," said Ross, who caught more of Lester's career innings than any other catcher. "I told him, 'Good luck tomorrow.' And I think I told him, I would tell him good luck, but I wouldn't mean it. He laughed."

Ross also loved seeing Lester in his typical attire.

"He was all decked out like he does," Ross said. "He's on the road with his nice boots and jeans and a sport coat and his collared shirt. A lot nicer than my leisure-wear style that I'm rockin' here."

In a tribute to Lester, first baseman Anthony Rizzo arrived to the Friendly Confines wearing one of Lester's home white Cubs jerseys with No. 34 on the back. He told Lester of his plans the night before, but Lester did not think he would follow through with the wardrobe choice. Center fielder Ian Happ also donned a cowboy hat and a flannel shirt for his trip to the ballpark.

The Cubs will pay their own tribute on Tuesday with a dedicated video to recognize Lester’s contributions to the franchise, which included one World Series, three National League Championship Series appearances, three division titles and five playoff berths in six years. Considered one of the greatest free-agent signings in Chicago sports history, Lester went 77-44 with a 3.64 ERA for the Cubs.

“I was out there thinking we should petition the mayor tomorrow for Jon Lester Day and let it be full capacity, just for the pregame ceremony, for him,” said Ross.  

“He did something that these fans waited 108 years for,” said Nationals manager Dave Martinez, who was the Cubs' bench coach from 2015-17. 

Following Sunday's game in Detroit, Happ told of how during his rookie year in 2017, he was charged with carrying a large speaker that belonged to Lester. On team flights, Lester and John Lackey would sit in the back of the plane, blasting country music through that sound system.

"That was my job," Happ said with a smile. "And it got me invited to the back of the plane to sit with him and Lack. That was pretty cool."

Plenty of players inside Chicago's clubhouse speak of how Lester played a role in teaching them "how to be a professional," as Happ phrased it. Adbert Alzolay, Monday's starter, is among them. After his first career win in the Majors in 2019, Lester left an autographed bottle of champagne at the rookie's locker.

“He did so much for this team and this city, too,” Alzolay said. “He took me under his wing when I first made it to the big leagues. So for me, it was a special moment.”

Rizzo's friendship with Lester dates back to the first baseman's days in the Red Sox's Minor League system. It’s a bond so deep Lester considers him “a friend for life,” and he joked his children were probably more excited to see Rizzo than their father on Monday. Rizzo recalls striking out twice against the lefty during their Boston days and calling his parents later to say how excited he was to face the Red Sox's ace.

They also have a personal connection given their respective battles with cancer early in their playing careers. Rizzo was diagnosed with a form of Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2008 and said Lester played a role in helping him get through that time.

"Just giving me the advice and the challenge to rise above," Rizzo said.

Rizzo said he made a pregame deal with Lester over what would happen if the first baseman took the lefty deep. In the first inning, Rizzo gave the first pitch from his friend a ride to left, where it dropped into Kyle Schwarber's glove for a sacrifice fly to put the Cubs ahead, 1-0.

Rizzo ran across the middle of the infield, passing just behind Lester on his way to the dugout.

"Stories will be told forever on all the things that we accomplished together," Rizzo said. "You're just appreciative of all those times. You're appreciative of all the times we'd hang out in Lester's backyard and stay up 'til the sun rises. During the playoffs, and all the parties that he threw, and we were all together.

"You just appreciate all these times, because, I always say, you don't know when it's going to end."

Following Monday’s game, Lester’s win total in his accolade-filled career remains seven shy of 200. He still could reach that marker this season, but for all the milestones he reached with the Cubs, that’s one they’re happy with him working toward against a different opponent.

“He's got enough stats that'll carry him throughout his life. I'm not worried about his career stats today,” said Ross. “Today, we're out to beat him. I'll have a beer with him at some point, for sure. But today, we'll try to keep him at 193 and wish him the best after today.”