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Washington Nationals’ Jon Lester returns to Wrigley Field for emotional night on the hill

He wasn’t great, or bad, by his own admission, but it meant a lot to Jon Lester to pitch in Wrigley Field again...

MLB: Washington Nationals at Chicago Cubs Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Lester made 91 starts in Wrigley Field during his time with the Chicago Cubs, but for the first time since 2015, he started in the friendly confines as a member of an opposing team in the 107-year-old ballpark last night.

Going into the outing, the 37-year-old southpaw said he was excited to be back at the field he called home between 2015-2020.

Getting to start in front of the fans on the North Side of Chicago again, after pitching in an empty ballpark in his sixth year with the Cubs last season, meant a lot to the lefty.

“I will be nice to have the fans. That’s what makes Wrigley so special, is just how intimate it is,” Lester said over the weekend, “... and having the fans, even though we’re not quite full capacity yet, but, it will just be nice to see those, see the faces in the stands and kind of get back to normalcy there.”

Did he think he might find some sort of closure?

“Like I said, I think Wrigley is so unique, and to kind of end there last year with no fans, it will be nice to go back and see that.

“I’m looking forward to that. Like I said, it’s such a unique place and I’m excited to get back on that mound.”

Lester was greeted warmly but the Cubs’ faithful, but rudely by the Cubs’ hitters, who put a run up in the first on two singles and sac fly, then added two on a Jason Heyward homer in the second, and another run on a Willson Contreras home run in the third, 4-1, but it was a 4-3 game after three and a half, after another former Cub, Kyle Schwarber, hit a two-run HR to center in Wrigley.

The third home run of the game off Lester, a solo shot by Javier Báez, with one down in the sixth, ended Lester’s outing...

Jon Lester’s Line: 5.1 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 0 BB, 4 Ks, 3 HRs, 76 P, 53 S, 5/2 GO/FO.

Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez came out to the mound to pull Lester, who’d received an ovation when he walked out from the bullpen before the game, and then when he took the mound, and again when he came up to bat. He acknowledged the applause in each of the instances, but he did not tip his cap or give a way on his way off.

“Yeah, I mean, that’s a tough one,” Lester said in his post game Zoom call after what ended up a 7-3 loss for the Nationals. “I have to — you have to also realize that I’m a National and I’m playing for these guys. I do appreciate it as a person, as an individual, but I also can’t be — I didn’t pitch great, I didn’t pitch terrible, I didn’t think, but I can’t be tipping my hat walking off the field like that down 5-3 at that particular moment in the game. So, is it appreciated, 100%. It’s a great moment, but I can’t do that being in the situation I’m in.”

What did Martinez, the bench coach in Chicago from 2015-17, say to Lester before he lifted him?

“I said, ‘Hey, you did well, you kept us in the game, and what a moment, what a moment for you, man. It’s awesome.’ I said, ‘Hey, be ready to go in five days.’”

Was he surprised at some of the Cubs’ hitters’ aggressive approach against him?

“A little bit, yeah,” the 37-year-old left-hander said. “Especially from a couple of the guys that I’ve know to be predominantly pretty patient.

“Once you kind of see that you have to make adjustments, and I think we were able to do that, we threw a lot of changeups, finally got a couple of curveballs in there tonight that were actually useful. So, yeah, a little surprised. I kind of figured some of them would maybe be a little but uber-aggressive just knowing me and knowing I’m around the zone, so we tried to pick our spots to slow them down, but obviously they beat me to a couple spots.”

Martinez said Lester was amped up early before settling in, and it was an emotional moment for all of the former Cubs who returned to Wrigley, and especially Lester.

“One, he’s had a tremendous career, and [two], he did something that these fans waited 108 years for, was part of it,” Martinez said of the 2016 team that ended the city’s 108-year World Series drought.

“So it was a big day for him, and then to go out there and just pitch. And like I said, he came out, he was amped up the first couple innings and then he settled down.”

Did Lester feel like he got any closure after finishing out his time in the Cubs’ rotation in an empty ballpark?

“I think it’s nice to come back, I’ll say that. It’s nice to come back. I think best-case scenario without having to pitch here — today was the best-case scenario, get Game 1, get it out of the way, like I told you guys earlier, was it Saturday when I spoke to you all, I was just happy to be here and have the fans in the seats and be able to see them and experience that. You never know, it may be the last time, it may not, I don’t know. We’ll cross that bridge when we get [there], but it was just nice to come back and do that, and obviously not the outcome I wanted, but we’ll move on to tomorrow.”