Three years later, Red Sox finally see a healthy John Lackey

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Yes, this was a different John Lackey.

A more relaxed John Lackey. A more comfortable John Lackey. A slimmer John Lackey.

A better John Lackey?

We'll see about that. One spring training inning isn't going to answer that question.

But one spring training inning told you more than you'd expect, and more than you can learn from reading the so-so numbers (one run, one hit, one walk, one hit batter, 20 pitches).

One inning, and a animated (in a good way) interview session that followed, told you that Lackey feels completely different from the way he felt in his first two often-troubled seasons with the Red Sox.

"I'm excited," Lackey said Saturday. "I was excited to be back out there."

And, for once, he looked it.

You can hardly blame him. Saturday's inning against the Rays was the first Lackey had pitched in any game since September 2011. A month later, he had Tommy John surgery that cost him the entire 2012 season.

What we know now is that his elbow basically cost him the 2011 season. And perhaps the 2010 season, as well.

"It's been a few years," he said, when asked the last time he pitched without pain.

Had he ever before done it in a Red Sox uniform?

"Probably not," Lackey admitted.

You got the idea he was telling the truth this time. We knew he wasn't telling the truth in 2011, when he kept claiming that the elbow wasn't the problem.

"I've lied, for sure," he said Saturday.

Lackey is 34 years old now. It's fair to wonder if he'll ever be the same guy who sometimes dominated with the Angels, the guy who was good enough for the Red Sox to commit $82.5 million on a five-year contract after the 2009 season.

It will take more of the spring to know that, and probably some of the season, too. The Red Sox would love to see Lackey take his spot alongside Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz (just as they want to see those two pitchers bounce back from subpar 2012 seasons), but they can't know yet that he will.

"We're confident, because of the track record he had before getting hurt," general manager Ben Cherington said. "He was pitching in pain in 2011, and maybe even in 2010."

Yes, in 2010, too, as Lackey admitted Saturday.

But not in 2012, at least not right now.

"He looked a lot more fluid than in the past, for obvious reasons," Lester said, after watching Lackey's inning against the Rays. "We're hoping Lack can go 200 innings, make every start, be the John Lackey of old."

We'll see. Lackey threw only fastballs Saturday, and he threw them at 88-89 mph.

If that's a step, that's fine, no cause at all for concern.

This day wasn't about results. It was about returning to the mound, and pitching without pain.

How did he look?

That's simple, as Lester said:

"It just doesn't look like it hurts."

Yes, it was a different John Lackey.

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