By Bruce Levine–

MESA, Ariz. (CBS) — Cubs right-hander John Lackey threw a clean two-inning stint Tuesday against a unique opponent. Ahead of the start of the World Baseball Classic, Team Italy visited to face the Cubs, and Lackey followed with a solid effort in which he allowed one hit and struck out one.

“It felt good,” Lackey said of his spring debut. “The first one out of the gate, I just basically threw fastballs (with just one breaking ball). Just a good one to keep moving forward on.”

Pitching in the final season of a two-year, $32-million deal, the 38-year-old Lackey emphasized last week that he’s focused on 2017 but may pitch again in 2018 at age 39 if he still feels good. The 11-8 record and 3.44 ERA that Lackey had in 2016 wasn’t the entire story of his season. Lackey was among the National League leader in innings pitched when he was injured in early August preparing for a random relief outing.

Lackey will be pitching in the last year of a two- year $32 million contract with Chicago. He said last week that if he feels good after 2017, he may pitch again at age 39. Lackey went 11-8 with a 3.44 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in a solid 2016 season, one in which he had a late-season setback when he was placed on the disabled list in August not long after twice warming up for random relief outings in extra innings.

Lackey made five more regular-season starts after that with quality results, but he wasn’t himself in the playoffs, when he had two four-innings outings and a five-inning effort. Now, he’s focused on taking care of his body to the best of his ability.

“The stuff you do in between starts gets harder as you get older,” Lackey said. “The workouts are tougher. When you’re out on the field, that is still a lot of fun. The other stuff does get a little tougher. It was still necessary in order to compete at a high level.”

So what brings Lackey back each year besides the competition and the money? Fellowship mostly.

“That is one of the main things I enjoy — the clubhouse and busting on each other,” Lackey said in reference to his teammates. “Going out with the group for team dinners is some of the most fun you can have on a big league team.”

Lackey will receive his third World Series ring when the Cubs hold a ceremony to commemorate their championship on April 12. Not that Lackey is preoccupied by that, though.

“It will go in the closet with the two other rings,” Lackey said. “I only wear one of them if we go to a wedding and have to throw on a tux.”

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.

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