By Sean McAdam
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- John Lackey is sure of this: His second season in Boston will be easier than his first.
"It's definitely a lot nicer this year," Lackey said on Monday. "It's kind of nice to be welcomed back instead of trying to learn everything."
Lackey is more comfortable and familiar in his second spring in a Red Sox uniform, more aware of what's expected from him and more sure how to approach the meat grinder that is the American League East.
But when the subject is last season, Lackey's first after signing a five-year, 82.5 million contract with the Red Sox, there is less certainty. There were positives -- Lackey led the staff in innings pitched and quality starts thrown -- but in recounting 2010, even Lackey was unsure how to characterize it, except to note with some bemusement, that it sure was -- and remains -- a popular topic.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, Lackey found it difficult to put last season into perspective, bouncing back and forth between satisfaction and disappointment.
"There's definitely room for improvement," he acknowledged. "But there were definitely some numbers I can look at that were pretty good. My innings were good and there were a lot of quality starts, but some were barely quality starts."
Fairly or not, some seemed to judge Lackey against his salary -- always a dangerous proposition. But at the end of the season there was a general feeling that Lackey hadn't been as good as advertised.
"Honestly, I think all the evaluation was overblown a little bit," said Lackey. "I'd only won more than 14 games once in my life. I led the team in quality starts and innings. But whatever, it kind of what comes with it. I've been asked about 400 times since I've been here.
"I don't know. I'm not worried about last year, honestly. I feel good about this year and I'm kind of moving forward."
If Lackey is unclear on his 2010 season, it's easy to understand why. For every positive (33 starts, his most since 2007), there was a corresponding negative -- such as the staggering 314 baserunners allowed, most of any pitcher in the American League. His 14 wins were respectable enough, but his ERA (4.34) was his highest since 2004, his second full season in the big leagues.
"I'm not saying I pitched great," said Lackey. "I'm not saying that at all. I definitely could have performed better. Absolutely, I agree with that. I definitely could have pitched better. But it was disappointing more for team goals. I'm more concerned with team things -- making the playoffs and winning rings."
Lackey's mixed emotions on Monday were a carryover from last season, when his postgame press conferences often offered a mix of accountability and bemoaning his bad fortune with bloop hits or plays not made behind him.
There's little doubt that Lackey pitched better in the second half than in the first. After the All-Star break, Lackey's ERA dropped by about three-quarters of a run per game and his strikeout-to-walk ratio improved dramatic.
"I thought he limited mistakes better in the second half," said Terry Francona. "He made a lot fewer mistakes as the season progressed. He threw fewer strikes at the start of the season and that made things a little harder. For whatever reason, it wasn't as easy those first couple of months as everybody had hoped. That's the human element.
"In the second half, my arm strength was a little better," he said. "I was kind of building still during the first half of the season. And knowing the hitters, the ballparks -- that sort of thing was helpful. And knowing catchers was helpful, working with those guys a couple of times.
It also may have helped that Lackey learned more about pitching in the American League East. Having been in the AL West, where ballparks are typically bigger and lineups are less fearsome, there were adjustments to made pitching in baseball's most demanding division.
Over time, Lackey learned them.
"Mentally, you've got to be focused more going through lineups," he said. "There are certain situations to pitch around a guy with a base open. There's a lot more game-planning, I would say, because the lineups are deeper."
This winter, he committed himself to a more intensive running program, resulting in the loss of about a dozen pounds. But as he begins his second season with the Red Sox, there was the feeling that the biggest weight -- that of the expectations that come with playing in Boston -- had yet to be shed.