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Hawks’ Houlton embraces challenge of Climax Series start against Eagles

by Jason Coskrey

Sendai D.J. Houlton has been waiting almost two weeks to get back on the mound.

When he finally gets his chance, it’ll be with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ season on the line.

Houlton is scheduled to start Game 2 of the first stage of the Pacific League Climax Series against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on Saturday afternoon in Sendai.

The Hawks trail the Eagles 1-0 in the best-of-three series.

“I’m ready,” Houlton said. “Feels like we’ve been sitting around forever, or I have been at least. I threw in a Phoenix League game last week. Other than that, I want to start throwing. I just want to play. I’m anxious. Been sitting around a lot. I just want to get going.”

Houlton will make his Climax Series debut against young fireballer Masahiro Tanaka, one of Rakuten’s two superstar pitchers. Which means an already fired-up Eagles fan base will be even louder with “Ma-kun” on the hill pitching for the series sweep.

“I try to block it out,” Houlton said. “Obviously, they’re not going to be cheering for me. So I’m just going to try and block it out and pitch like I did most of the year. I don’t want to put any more pressure on myself than there already is, so I’m going to go out there and try and treat it like it’s May or June.”

Houlton was one of Softbank’s top pitchers this season, finishing 11-8 with a 2.89 ERA in 25 starts. He lost his last matchup against the Eagles, giving up five runs over 6 2/3 innings in Fukuoka’s 5-4 loss on Oct. 1 in Sendai. Overall, Houlton was 2-2 with a 2.60 ERA in four games against the Eagles.

“The last start I struggled a little bit,” Houlton said. “But other than that, I think I threw pretty well against them. (Takeshi) Yamasaki is a home run hitter, (Fernando) Seguignol is a good hitter and so is Teppei (Tsuchiya).

“So they have some good hitters and they have some guys that hit for some power. They’re pretty balanced. They got some guys up top that can run. So they do a little bit of everything.”

The Eagles put on a show of strength in Game 1, touching up starter Toshiya Sugiuchi for three home runs (including a pair of two-run shots) in just 2 2/3 innings.

Houlton is well aware of the danger the Rakuten lineup poses and is mindful of what he has to do to avoid Sugiuchi’s fate.

“I gotta keep the ball in the yard,” Houlton said. “Can’t give up home runs here because guys are going to be on base. They do a lot of bunting and hit-and-run, that sort of thing. They play that sort of game. But once they are on base, I gotta make sure I don’t give up home runs. I just gotta limit the damage and hopefully give our team a chance to win.”