D.J. Houlton didn’t know what to expect, and there was a good chance no one else did either.
The 32-year-old Yomiuri Giants hurler couldn’t remember ever making a start on three days’ rest, even as far back as his days pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Giants had dug one heck of a hole for themselves too, dropping the first three games of the Central League Climax Series final stage against the Chunichi Dragons, and were facing elimination for the third straight night.
Simply put, the margin for error was microscopic.
Second-year star Hirokazu Sawamura had won Game 4, ace Tetsuya Utsumi started Game 5, and Toshiya Sugiuchi was out injured.
So with a shortage of reliable arms, Giants manager Tatsunori Hara turned to Houlton, and the right-hander answered the call with five innings of shutout ball in a 4-2 Game 6 victory that sent the Kyojin to the Japan Series, where they’ll face the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
“Everything really felt good,” Houlton said. “I was kind of surprised how it felt, I mean I was on three days’ rest. I was surprised I felt pretty good and my location was good enough obviously.”
Houlton allowed a pair of hits, struck out four and walked three, extinguishing any embers of hope the Dragons had despite not having his best stuff. He threw 87 pitches after tossing 84 in a Game 2 loss.
“I kind of felt pretty tired toward the end,” Houlton said. “For the most part, I still felt pretty good. I was kind of worried about how my control was going to be, but my body felt OK.”
Houlton’s shakiest inning was his first, when it looked like Hara’s gamble would not pay off.
He needed 25 pitches to escape the first, walking Yohei Oshima, giving up a sacrifice bunt, and walking Hirokazu Ibata before consecutive strikeouts got him out of the inning. Houlton’s command failed him at times, but that didn’t rattle the Fullerton, California, native.
“It didn’t really bother me,” Houlton said. “I knew I was on three days’ rest, I knew I wasn’t going to be that sharp. If I got behind in the count, I couldn’t just be serving up balls down the middle. So I mean, if I walk a guy, I walk a guy, and I’ll start over and get the next guy.”
Houlton is back in the Japan Series one year after helping the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks win it all. He prevailed in Game 4 against the Dragons in that series, winning his first and only appearance in the 2011 postseason despite a 28-day layoff.
“It feels great,” he said. “Two years in a row for me. Feels good. Want to go there, to Sapporo, and take care of business. I’m just excited to be back there again, and I’m playing for the championship again.”
Houlton joined Yomiuri after four seasons in Fukuoka, where he compiled a 42-27 record and a 3.32 ERA. Last season was by far his best in Japan. He was 19-6 with a 2.19 ERA during the regular season, helping the Hawks capture the interleague title, before the team capped the year with the Japan Series crown.
The former Dodger won 12 games in his first year with the Giants, and his victory on Monday eased some of the sting of his loss in Game 2.
“The first month or two, it didn’t go too great,” Houlton said of his season. “I felt like I threw OK, but I had some ups and downs. I had some bad games, some good games, I wasn’t too consistent. In the second half, for some reason, I kind of fell into my rhythm and kept it going. It feels really great to win, but also to really contribute to it, be a part of it. Be part of the reason why we’re going to the Japan Series.”
Among current Giants pitchers, with the exception of the injured Sugiuchi, Houlton is probably the most experienced when it comes to facing the Fighters after seeing them for years in the PL while with Softbank. He won his only start against Nippon Ham this season.
“I’ve faced the Fighters a lot,” Houlton said. “They’re lineup is really fresh in my mind. I feel pretty confident against them.”