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 baseball.
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 on Saturday as the Red Sox opened their spring training scheduled with a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at JetBlue Park. He threw just one inning but rarely have 20 pitches been so satisfying.
“I missed playing baseball. It was fun being back out there.” Lackey said.
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. It’s been a lot of work,” Lackey said. “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 smiled when asked about giving up a run, saying he was satisfied just to hit Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s glove on the fly after so much time away.
Red Sox manager John Farrell, who twice had Tommy John surgery during his playing 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.”
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, 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.”
See the Sunday Globe for more on Lackey.