John Lackey smiled. John Lackey laughed. John Lackey made us wonder if we were living in The Matrix.

Was this the same guy who basically created a new verb (“to surl”) while ensuring no one could see the side of him that makes him universally loved by teammates, even if it meant being reviled by pretty much everyone else?

But there he sat in the interview room at JetBlue Park, friendly and relaxed, thrilled to have stared his career mortality in the face and not blinked.

Lackey returned to the mound yesterday, more than a year after his last big league appearance, a victory over the New York Yankees on Sept. 25, 2011, with the Red Sox fighting for their playoff lives and the right-hander barely able to throw, thanks to the string cheese that served as the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery almost immediately, missed the entire 2012 season, and is now beginning the end of the road back.