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Houlton feels good about ’12 Giants

by Jason Coskrey

D.J. Houlton is dealing with a case of deja vu.

The right-hander is living in a new city, pitching for a new team and playing in a new league. So much has changed for him in the span of a few months. Still, Houlton can’t help but feel like he’s been through all this before.

Getting used to life in first place tends to do that.

Last season, Houlton was a part of a Fukuoka Softbank Hawks team that won the Pacific League pennant by 17½ games, after also winning the crown in 2010. This year, he’s a member of the Yomiuri Giants, who beat the Yokohama BayStars 11-3 on Sunday to open up a seven-game lead at the top of the Central League standings.

“I think the team here, the Giants, feels a lot like the team last year with the Hawks,” Houlton said. “We (the Hawks) just always found ways to win games, and we had a great bullpen last year, and we (the Giants) have a great bullpen this year. I see a lot of similarities.”

Houlton has made 19 starts for Yomiuri this season and is 9-6 with a 2.75 ERA and 103 strikeouts. With one more victory, he’ll reach double-digit wins for the second straight season and third time in four years.

The Giants’ pitching staff has the look of a title contender with Tetsuya Utsumi (12-6) and Toshiya Sugiuchi (10-2) leading the charge and Houlton and Hirokazu Sawamura (9-8) providing support.

“It has the same feeling,” Houlton said, again comparing this season’s Giants to last year’s Hawks. “Most teams really can’t beat us if we play our game. Even if we just play well, we don’t have to play great, we just have to play well, it seems like we always come out on top.”

Houlton was a big part of the Hawks’ success last season, finishing 19-6 with a 2.19 ERA to help the team capture its first Japan Series title since 2003.

The Giants brass gets antsy when title droughts last beyond one or two years. Thusly, last season’s third-place finish in the CL and failure to win the Japan Series — the Kyojin last won in 2009 — led to an offseason overhaul that ultimately saw Houlton, Hawks teammate Sugiuchi and BayStars slugger Shuichi Murata land in Tokyo.

Having a familiar face in Sugiuchi has likely helped ease the transition into a new clubhouse, and Houlton says things on the field haven’t changed much despite his new surroundings.

“I think the only adjustment was getting used to the Giants, the Giants’ atmosphere,” he said. “It’s a little different than what I was used to with the Hawks. Also just getting used to the catchers. It’s not really a big difference, but I was with the same catchers for the last four years. Overall, it’s still Japanese baseball, so it’s not too different over here.”

The 33-year-old Fullerton, California, native spent his first four seasons in Japan with the Hawks, contributing to a pair of interleague titles, two PL pennants and last season’s Japan Series triumph. He’s 51-33 with a 3.21 in Japan and partially attributes his success in recent seasons to his ability to adapt.

“I think I’m a different pitcher than I was when I came over here. I think my breaking stuff’s a little better, my off-speed stuff’s a little better,” he said. “I think I’ve kind of adapted to Japanese hitters. I feel like I’ve abandoned what I learned in the States, and remade myself over here according to how the hitters over here are, because it’s a lot different here than it is back home.”