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Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011

Houlton excited to pitch in Japan Series spotlight


Staff writer

NAGOYA — D.J. Houlton isn't feeling any pressure ahead of his Japan Series debut. It's the waiting that's the hardest part.

The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks hurler last pitched Oct. 18, when he beat the Orix Buffaloes for his 19th win of the season. He was in line to pitch Game 4 of the Pacific League Climax Series final stage, but the Hawks finished off the Seibu Lions in three games.

Now it finally looks like Houlton will get his chance, in Softbank's most important game of the year as the Hawks′ Game 4 starter on Wednesday.

"I look forward to it," Houlton said. "I just want to go out there and pitch in the Japan Series for the first time. I think it'll be fun, it's the first time I get to do that. That's what it's all about, to go out there and be able to pitch in the big game."

At 32 years old and having had a couple of stints with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005 & 2007, Houlton has seen his fair share of action. Still, he says if he starts Game 4 as expected — teams are not required to announce starters in the Japan Series — it will be the biggest game of his career.

"Back home, I didn't have too many important games in the big leagues or anything like that," Houlton said. "Probably up to this point would be last year's Climax Series game against the (Chiba Lotte) Marines. Probably this will be the biggest one."

The Fullerton, California, native is coming off his best season as a professional, going 19-6 with a 2.19 ERA for the PL Champion Hawks. He ended the season tied with Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (19-5) for the NPB lead in wins.

He was the third foreign pitcher since 1950 to win a share of the wins title with 18 or more victories, joining former Hanshin Tigers great Gene Bacque, the only foreign player to win the Sawamura Award (in 1964), and former Nankai Hawks hurler Joe Stanka.

Houlton faced the Dragons once during the regular season, allowing three runs on five hits in Softbank's 5-2 loss on June 16 at Nagoya Dome. He also lost to the Dragons in Nagoya last season.

"I don't think I've ever won here," Houlton said. "But I feel comfortable here. It feels similar to our dome, except the color is a little different. Same kind of feel, same kind of size."

Comforts aside, Houlton is wary of the threat the Dragons present.

"Seems like everybody in their lineup can hit," Houlton said. "They seem like they're a pretty balanced lineup and it's kind of hard to avoid any couple of hitters because it looks like all of them are swinging pretty well right now."

Game 4 is a pivotal one for the Hawks. A win ensures the series returns to Fukuoka for Game 6 on Saturday, while a loss pushes Softbank to the brink of elimination.

Not that Houlton is feeling the pressure.

"I try not to," he said. "If I have pressure on me, maybe I don't pitch as well as I can. So if I just treat it as if it was a game from any other time in the year, I guess that'll be best for me."



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