FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Before he stepped on the mound in front of a full stadium for the first time in nearly 17 months, John Lackey did something he probably hadn't done since his Major League debut.
"I kind of took a second before I went on the mound, on the bench, and just reflected on the past year and a half, and it's been a lot of work, and I've got to thank a lot of trainers, a lot of people that helped me get back to this point," said Lackey. "I was excited to be back out there."
The setting -- sun-splashed JetBlue Park in a Grapefruit League game against the Rays -- was the perfect way for Lackey to re-transition to life as a member of Boston's starting rotation.
After spending all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John ligament transfer surgery, Lackey is loving the fact that he can be a pitcher again this year.
Not even the way the outing started -- walk, double to left, hit batter -- could wipe the smile off his face.
Lackey knew that the early lumps were just a matter of adrenaline overdrive.
"There was definitely some, for sure," Lackey said. "That got better as I got a little more tired. The ball started coming down a little bit. Yeah, the first couple of hitters, I was up in the zone."
And even through the rust, Lackey minimized the damage, going strikeout, sacrifice fly and flyout with the next three batters, getting out of it with just one run allowed.
"Honestly, yeah, the results stuff, I really wasn't real concerned about today," Lackey said. "I was just glad to be back out there, get things going in that direction. Next time out, we'll start to work on a few other things."
As manager John Farrell had plotted going in, Lackey went just the one inning in this one. He threw 20 pitches, 10 of them for strikes.
"It's a big step, and it's one that 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," Farrell said. "Today was the first step, the first building block, toward Spring Training and getting back to being a regular member of this rotation."
Even as Lackey did his postgame media conference, he could hardly contain his smile.
"I was excited, it was fun," Lackey said. "I missed playing baseball, for sure. It was good to be back out there and the arm felt fine -- I didn't feel any pain in the elbow."
No pain in the elbow. For Lackey, that was the best part of it all.
Though he never complained while pitching through some discomfort in 2010 and pure agony during a nightmarish 2011, Lackey's elbow ached.
"I've lied, for sure, about that," Lackey said. "There was definitely some pain a few times where I said there wasn't. It's been a few years, for sure."
Since coming to Boston at the start of 2010, had there ever been a start where Lackey's elbow was pain free?
"Probably not," Lackey said.
So even as Lackey drew the ire of the general public for being unable to live up to the early years of the five-year, $82.5 million contract he signed, he earned mountains of respect within the confines of his clubhouse.
"The thing is, John doesn't talk about [injuries]," said Red Sox ace lefty John Lester said. "You know. You can tell. You've watched him enough and you've seen him when he feels right. He never tries to build any type of excuses. He's one of the greatest teammates I've had a chance to play with, and he's been that way since Day 1."
While prognosticators don't know quite what to make of the Red Sox heading into this season, a return to form by Lackey could change a lot of things.
"He's a big part of our rotation that we just got back," said Lester. "He's worked hard to get back to this point, and I'm sure he's pretty excited today, just being around him this morning. It was good to see him. He looked good, his arm looked good -- a lot more fluid than in the past, for obvious reasons. It was good to see."
When Lackey takes his next start on Thursday, he will start to rediscover his pitch mix. This start was just about getting a feel for being back on a Major League mound.
"I was basically just going to throw all fastballs today, just trying to build arm strength," Lackey said. "I think I tried one changeup, that's it. The rest were all fastballs. Yeah, there was definitely a little extra. It's a little different than throwing on the side, for sure."
As for what 2013 holds for Lackey, he hopes for health, and has confidence the rest will take care of itself.
"I mean, I can't predict the future this year. I've had some pretty good years in this league, and I'll hopefully have another one," Lackey 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 there."