CHICAGO (AP) — Jon Lester and David Ross were together again at Wrigley Field on Monday. The old friends ran into each other on a concourse and shared a big hug.
“I think I told him I would tell him good luck but I wouldn’t mean it. He laughed,” Ross said. “He looks great. … I love the guy, so it’s just good to see him.”
It was a day full of warmth and cheers as Lester and Kyle Schwarber returned to Chicago with the Washington Nationals, losing 7-3 to their former team in the opener of a four-game series.
The Cubs honored Schwarber with a pregame highlight video that included the slugger’s massive homer against St. Louis during the 2015 playoffs, a drive that landed on top of the scoreboard in right field. Schwarber took his hat off and waved as the crowd of 11,144 stood and cheered.
Schwarber heard another loud ovation when he walked to the plate in the first. He exchanged a few words with Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, and then waved his batting helmet toward the crowd.
“It was really nice and meant a lot,” Schwarber said.
Schwarber connected for a two-run homer in the fourth, sending a drive into the bleachers in center. For Schwarber, who was non-tendered by Chicago in December, it was a special moment.
“It’s not a hate thing or anything like that. It’s more of just going out there and proving something to yourself,” he said.
The 37-year-old Lester also was greeted with a standing ovation when he walked out to the mound for the bottom of the first. The left-hander took his hat off briefly in appreciation, and then quickly went back to his warmup routine.
The Cubs plans to show a Lester tribute video before Tuesday’s game.
“It was awesome. It was nice. It was a great atmosphere here,” Lester said.
Lester’s December 2014 deal with the Cubs in free agency was a touch point in the franchise’s rise from the bottom of the standings to World Series champion. Schwarber, a first-round pick by Chicago in 2014, also played a big role when the Cubs won it all five years ago for the first time since 1908.
Asked what Lester brought to Chicago that remains with the team today, Ross joked about Lester’s fondness for Miller Lite. Then Ross, the current manager of the Cubs and former catcher for the lefty, turned serious.
“I think he brought a championship mentality and a preparation and hard work that he expected every day, that he held himself accountable for and that he was brought up knowing how to do, he brought that here,” Ross said, “and winning followed.”
Lester went 77-44 with a 3.64 ERA in 171 starts for Chicago, and the team made the playoffs five times in his six years with the franchise. He talked about returning and how much it would mean to earn career win No. 200 with the Cubs, but the sides weren’t able to work it out and he finalized a $5 million, one-year deal with the Nationals in January.
“He’s a big reason why this franchise turned into a winning franchise,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said.
Schwarber quickly became a fan favorite after he was promoted to the majors in 2015, flashing tape-measure power at the plate. He hurt his left knee early in the 2016 season, but he returned in time to serve as the designated hitter for the World Series games in Cleveland and hit .412 (7 for 17) with two RBIs to help the Cubs win the title.
The 28-year-old Schwarber signed a $10 million, one-year deal with Washington in January. While he has moved on with his new team, he remains fond of his first big league club.
“There’s a lot of things here that made me the person I am today and the ballplayer I am today,” Schwarber said. “There’s things that you definitely keep with you and so it’s hard to forget, because this is where you came up, this is where you grew up in the big leagues.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
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