FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He knows that people have forgotten about him.

"If you stop playing, people are going to forget about you, no matter who you are," said Julio Lugo, who is trying to reclaim his job as the Red Sox's starting shortstop.

There's another thing that Lugo knows, one that drives him even more than falling off the radar. He knows that Red Sox fans have not yet seen the player he is, the guy that general manager Theo Epstein was enthusiastic about signing for four years at $36 million prior to the 2007 season.

"Definitely, definitely," Lugo said. "I feel that way, and I'm not afraid to say it. I haven't played at that level I've always played. I know it's there. Some time it's going to come out. I'm getting ready to do that."

Ready, Lugo reasons, because now he is healthy, which was never the case after the All-Star break last year.

And also ready because he no longer feels burdened by the expectations he placed on himself entering that 2007 season, when Lugo hit a disappointing .237.

"I feel good," said Lugo, who is competing with Jed Lowrie to be the Opening Day shortstop. "Every time you have an injury, it's a bad year. I thought I had a bad year because of the injury, but it's good to be out there and be running around and be able to play."

That was something he couldn't do the entire second half last year. Lugo was busting it down the line on a Friday night at Fenway against the Orioles when, pop, he blew out his left quadriceps.

Five weeks later, he was making progress in his rehab when he felt another pop. During a running exercise at Camden Yards, Lugo aggravated the injury, a setback that rendered him unavailable to play until the World Series.

Yes, Lugo was finally going to be ready to play again, and on the grandest stage of all. But alas, the Red Sox lost Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, serving as a fitting end to the frustration Lugo dealt with for three months.

"Every time you miss a year, you come back more hungry," Lugo said. "You feel like you want to get back to the shape you were in before and get back to playing so I can prove that they know what they're going to get from me."

"I'm ready to get back to the level I was at."
-- Julio Lugo

When the Red Sox signed Lugo, they thought they were getting a threat on the bases and a pest at the plate. The Red Sox remembered how he -- along with Carl Crawford -- used to cause havoc against them at the top of the Tampa Bay lineup.

But in 2007, except for small spurts, the Red Sox never saw that guy. What happened?

"My first year was tough for me," Lugo said. "You come to a new team where you want everybody to see you play well. But then in the second half, I played well and everything was good."

Lugo did, in fact, hit .280 in the second half of 2007, but it was lost in the shadow of the .197 he hit before the All-Star break.

Last year, Lugo got off to a decent start offensively, albeit with hardly any extra-base production (he sported a .330 slugging percentage prior to the injury). But his problem was defense, where Lugo made 16 errors in 292 chances. Manager Terry Francona started using a defensive replacement for him in the late innings of close games.

"The first half of last year, I made some errors at the beginning, but I was going to handle myself in the second half like I always do," said Lugo. "I've always been a second half guy."

But following Lugo's untimely injury, the second half belonged to Lowrie, who handled himself well for a rookie. Not only did Lowrie play steady defense and show the plate discipline of a veteran, but he produced a walk-off hit to finish off the Angels in Game 4 of the Division Series.

There was speculation that Lugo would be traded in the offseason, opening the position for Lowrie. But no deal was made, which has led to some intrigue heading into the season.

Though no announcement has been made regarding who will start at short on Opening Day, Lugo felt decidedly better about his situation after an individual meeting with Francona at the start of camp.

"I got some things out that I needed to say," Lugo said. "They had some things out there that they needed to say. I think it was great. Everything is much better now."

So perhaps the Red Sox will finally get some return on their investment in Lugo.

"There's a lot that he does bring," Francona said. "When a guy gets hurt, I think people tend to forget, and that's what we don't want to do. That's why we reminded me that he kind of comes into this camp with a new year, a clean slate, and he looks like he's worked very hard. He's thick and stronger. And I know we haven't even played a game yet, but the ball does seem to be coming off his bat good, which is a good sign. That's good news."

One thing Lugo clearly seems to have back is his confidence.

"I'm ready to do it now," Lugo said. "I'm ready to get back to the level I was at. I'm hungry every day. That's why I get paid so much money -- to do well. That's what I'm going to do."