FORT MYERS, Fla. — For one day at least, it wasn’t about expectations for John Lackey, his spot in the rotation or whether he could live up to his big contract. It was simply a chance to play.
Lackey had gone 515 days without pitching in a real game. His right elbow gave out by the end of the 2011 season, the ulnar collateral ligament so frayed that doctors were surprised he found a way to get the ball to the plate.
Tommy John reconstruction surgery and months of rehabilitation followed.
Lackey finally took the mound Saturday as the Red Sox opened their spring training schedule with a 4-3 loss to a Tampa Bay Rays split squad at JetBlue Park. He threw just one inning but rarely have 20 pitches been so satisfying.
“I missed playing baseball," said Lackey. “It was fun being back out there.”
Lackey warmed up like he normally would. But there was one change to his usual routine.
“I kind of took a second before I went on the mound on the bench and kind of reflected on the past year and a half,” he said. “It’s been a lot of work. I’ve got to thank a lot of trainers, a lot of people that helped me get back to this point. I was excited to be back out there.”
Lackey loaded the bases on 10 pitches, his excitement causing his fastball to ride high in the strike zone. He walked Ben Zobrist before Desmond Jennings singled. Lackey then hit Matt Joyce in the back.
“He was pretty charged up,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “But then he settled down. It was the old Lack.”
Lackey struck out Jack Cust. Ryan Roberts hit a fly ball to right field, deep enough to score a run. Then Lackey got ahead of Sean Rodriguez and got him to fly to right.
“It got better as I got a little more tired, actually,” Lackey said. “The ball started coming down a little bit. The first couple of hitters, I was up in the zone. I was throwing all fastballs today, trying to build arm strength.”
Lackey smiled when asked about giving up a run, saying he was satisfied just to hit Saltalamacchia’s glove on the fly after so much time away.
“Just glad to be back out there and get things going in that direction. Next time out we’ll start working on a few other things,” Lackey said.
Red Sox manager John Farrell, who twice had Tommy John surgery during his pitching career, could relate to Lackey’s emotions.
“It’s a big step,” he said. “Over the last 16 months, he was obviously on his own program and probably at times felt like he was the only one going through it. Today was the first step, the first building block and getting back to being a regular member of this rotation.”
Lackey has dealt with elbow issues for several seasons but dutifully took the ball 61 times in the first two seasons with the Red Sox, missing only a few starts.
Whenever he was asked, he said, he could pitch.
“I’ve lied for sure about that,” Lackey said. “There was definitely some pain a few times when I said there wasn’t. It’s been a few years, yeah.”
In addition to a much slimmer build, Lackey showed a rehabilitated persona, too. He cracked jokes with reporters after the game, and for the first time since signing with the Sox, he seemed at ease answering questions.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I feel like it’s one of my first spring trainings, I really do. It’s been a long road back to here and it’s fun to be back out.”
Lackey will start again Thursday against the Pirates in Bradenton. The plan is to go two innings that day then build up from there.
Lackey will get one extra start in spring training. If the schedule holds, he will be ready to start the fourth or fifth game of the season.
When he was asked whether the Sox might cut back on his innings as a precaution, Lackey laughed.
“I’m 34, man,” he said. “I’m a grown man. It’s time to go.”
Lackey’s teammates, led by the other starters, greeted him at the top of dugout steps when he came off the field. Some Red Sox fans soured on Lackey because of his erratic performances. But he never lost his standing as one of the most popular players in the clubhouse.
“Today was a good day for all of us,” Clay Buchholz said. “Lack was back on the mound and throwing without pain. Some people forget how good he was before he got hurt. If we can get that guy back, that’s huge for us.”