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Lackey's comfort at an all-time high with Red Sox

Righty doesn't have any critics to silence, injuries to deal with coming off title

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For the first time in John Lackey's time with the Red Sox, he comes to camp without critics to silence or health problems to battle through or back from.

In his fifth Spring Training in Fort Myers, the right-hander is at last in his comfort zone with Red Sox Nation.

The last memory of Lackey from 2013 was that of him walking off the Fenway mound to a thunderous ovation in the clinching Game 6 of the World Series.

At that moment, Lackey at last tipped his cap to the Fenway faithful, serving as a symbol that he had finally bonded with a general public that had been harsh to him his first two seasons with the team.

Lackey used to bite his tongue when the subject of Boston fans came up, and who could blame him? But on that night of Oct. 30, 2013, the bad memories were washed away with an ovation that still just about gives him goosebumps.

"It was a special feeling. The whole night was special," said Lackey. "You could feel it in the atmosphere even when I was warming up. It's going to be tough to beat for sure. It was pretty cool."

Winning Game 7 of the World Series as a rookie with the Angels was also tough to beat, but 11 years later, Lackey was able to do just that.

"Obviously, you know how hard it is to get there," said Lackey. "When you have a decade in between them, you probably appreciate the second one a little more."

Perhaps the magnitude of what Lackey was able to accomplish and come back from is still sinking in.

"In the moment, it's kind of tough. But a few days later, looking back I may have [reflected]," Lackey said. "On the flight home, with your family, friends, we talked about it over a couple of cold ones. It was pretty fun."

The reason Lackey's teammates admire him so much is because he never complains or makes excuses.

In that nightmarish 2011 season, when Lackey pitched with a deteriorating ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and posted a gruesome 6.41 ERA, he never once used the injury as an excuse. This, even as the boos rained down all over him and talk-show callers begged the Red Sox to find a way to get rid of him.

During Lackey's initial tough period with the Red Sox, Mike Napoli -- his teammate with the Angels and now again in Boston -- hated watching what his friend was going through.

Few people enjoyed the big rebound by Lackey more than the man who stood at first base for nearly all of his 33 starts.

"I'm really good friends with him so I know it meant a lot to him," said Napoli. "I was definitely happy and excited for him, because what went on before, he was trying to battle through. For him to come back last year and throw like he did, it just showed a lot that they signed the right guy. He just had some injury problems. I was really happy for him."

So when a lot of skeptics wondered what Lackey could do entering last season, after missing all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Napoli sort of knew what was coming.

"I knew what he could do, a healthy Lackey," Napoli said. "I've seen it. I've caught it. I knew it was in there. I knew if he could get back to where he feels good and his arm is free, he would be able to do that, and he did it. It was good for him and good for the organization."

At the age of 35, Lackey's rebuilt elbow might even be capable of topping his solid 2013 season and even better postseason, in which he outdueled Justin Verlander in a 1-0 epic in the American League Championship Series and fired a gem in the Fall Classic clincher.

"A lot of people I've talked with about the surgery, the second year they do feel even better, they do feel stronger," Lackey said. "But a lot of them weren't 35, too, you know what I mean? There's going to be a little bit of a combination of that. I feel like I've put in a lot of work to be ready for this season, and I'm feeling pretty confident going into it."

And as for all those critics Lackey had to endure for a couple of years, he never believed what they were saying.

"I don't think many people that know me personally wrote me off," said Lackey. "It was great for sure, coming through a surgery. There was a lot of hard work put in just to get back out on the field, much less to perform well once you get there. To have a good year and for the team to win a championship, it couldn't have worked out any better."

Now that the comeback is complete, did Lackey really have full confidence he could be so effective last year?

"Yes," said Lackey. "Without a doubt. I busted my [butt] last offseason."

Red Sox manager John Farrell is fortunate to not only have a bona fide ace like Jon Lester, but another proven veteran with two World Series rings worth of credibility in Lackey.

"He was back to the point [last year] of being able to lead by example and then give his impressions and experiences against a given lineup to the guy who was following him," Farrell said. "He was freed up to do what he's been doing so well for a long period of time. By everything evident in this camp, he's picking up right where he left off."

What Lackey demands most out of himself for 2014 is innings, at least 200 of them. If he can do that, he has full confidence in the body of work he will produce.

"I've thrown 200 innings [five] times in my career. It's something I expect out of myself," said Lackey. "You put in the offseason work, you put in the work between starts to get to that number. I think that's an important number for sure."

How does Lackey sum up his time with the Red Sox to date?

"It's been a crazy ride I guess, for sure," he said. "Honestly, I don't look at a whole lot of that stuff, negative or positive. I have family and friends who will tell me stuff, but no offense, I don't read a whole bunch of stuff. I don't listen to any stuff. I'm pretty comfortable with who I am."

And at last, Red Sox fans can say the same.

Ian Browne is a reporter for Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne.
Read More: Boston Red Sox, John Lackey