FORT MYERS, Fla. -- John Lackey is a new man this spring, noticeably slimmer and with a surgically-repaired elbow.
But perhaps the biggest difference is in his demenaor. Once defensive and at times surly in his dealings with reporters, Lackey, following his spring training debut and first game against major league hitters since the final week of the 2011 season, was loose, funny and humble.
Asked when was the last time that he could truthfully say that he was pain-free in his elbow, Lackey smiled as he considered his answer.
'Oh, I've lied for sure, about that,'' he said. "There's definitely been some pain a few times when I said there wasn't. It's been a few years.''
When asked if he was monitoring his velocity, Lackey jokingly acted as though he was taken aback.
"On the first game, a year and a half after Tommy John?'' he replied, grinning. "No. I was just trying to hit the (catcher's) glove today.''
And finally, after Lackey recounted some of the things he had missed as he rehabbed from the surgery, someone suggested that answering questions from reporters after starts might qualify.
"Let's not get crazy,'' said Lackey, agains flashing a wide grin.
This was a Lackey seldom seen in his first three years in a Red Sox uniform. Often, he was so defensive in his responses, it was as if he had watched an entirely different game. When he was shelled, he would insist that a particularly bad outing was due only to a bad pitch here or there.
At times, he would tire of the questioning, and tell reporters with disgust: "You guys are going to write what you want anyway.''
But not Saturday. There was a human side to Lackey, as if, following the layoff, he had gained a new appreciation for it all.
"I'm excited,'' said Lackey. "I feel like it's one of my first spring trainings. It's been a long road back.''
Indeed, it has been. Other than a couple of innings in an Instructional League game last October, he hadn't been on a mound in a game situation in almost 18 months. Along the way, he fashioned himself a new physique.
"It's not that much different weight-wise,'' he insisted. "But I feel good. I put in a lot of hard work and I'm hoping it pays off.''
"He's worked hard to get back to this point,'' said teammate Jon Lester. "I'm sure he's pretty excited today. It was good to see him. He looked good. He was a lot more fluid than in the past, for obvious
reasons. He was free and easy and it just doesn't look like it hurts. That's kind of the easiest way to put it.''
The start Saturday -- limited to an inning -- did not begin well, with Lackey walking the first hitter he faced, allowing a single to the second and plunking the third.
But he limited the damage, allowing just one run on a sacrifice fly.
"From a physical standpoint,'' said manager John Farrell, "he came out of it fine. I thought he looked free and easy on the mound and it's just a matter of getting back into his delivery with each added inning. But the ball (came) out of hand, I thought, as we expected today.''
"The results, I wasn't real concerned about today,'' he said. "I was glad to get back out there, get things going in that direction. Next time out, we'll start working on a few other things. It was fun. I missed playing baseball for sure and it was good to be back out there. My arm felt fine. I didn't feel any pain in the elbow, so we'll keep moving forward.''
Lackey confirmed, too, that the outing felt special, after all he had been through to return.
"I kind of took a second before I took the mound,'' he said,'' on the bench, and kind of reflected on the past year and a half. It's been a lot of work. A lot of people helped me to get back to this point. It was exciting to be back out there.''
"I think in 2010, he was OK as far as trying to battle through that. I hope we haven't seen him. I hope he comes out and shoves it right up everybody's you-know-what. I hope we haven't seen the real one yet and we're going to get him this year and the next couple of years.''
By design, he limited himself to all fastballs except for one changeup.
"Just trying to build arm strength,'' he explained, noting that breaking balls would be re-introduced to his repertoire soon enough.
There's more work to be done, but there's time to build. Saturday, though, was a day to measure how far he's already come.
"It's definitely a big step to be back out there,' concluded Lackey. "It's a different feeling in the middle of the stadium then back here on one of these mounds''