THE GOOD NEWS for the Audubon High baseball team was that Buena's Mike Ney was not going to pitch yesterday in the South Jersey Group 2 championship at Audubon.
The bad news for Audubon was also that Ney didn't toe the mound.
"I think I hit better when I'm not pitching. I concentrate more," Ney said.
Buena had gotten to yesterday's final courtesy of Ney's arm, as he had the wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals, striking out 19 in the process. Yesterday, he settled in at shorstop and his plate concentration gave Audubon headaches all day as he led the Chiefs to an 11-9 win, giving them their first-ever sectional title.
The 6-2 senior knocked in five runs, four coming on a grand slam in the third inning that tied the game at 4-4 and propelled his team to a six-run frame.
"That grand slam was huge for them," said Audubon's Steve Rizzo, who went 1-for-4 and pitched 2-plus innings, despite battling a high fever this week. "That showed that they were here to stay. After we scored the four runs [in the second], we thought we would score more runs and it would pretty much be over. That was just huge for them."
And so was the relief pitching of Buena junior Ryan Farabella. The 5-8 lefty entered the game in the second inning with his team trailing 4-0 and runners on first and second with one out. But he calmly got Audubon's cleanup hitter, Wade Gies, to fly out and then struck out Tom Dyer to end the threat.
Farabella totaled 5 2/3 innings, allowed three earned runs and struck out three. He finished the game strong, not allowing a hit to the final 11 batters he faced.
Most impressive about Farabella was holding Rizzo and Gies hitless in four at-bats during his stint. Rizzo entered the game hitting .528 and Gies is a home run threat.
"I just tried to keep the ball low on them," said Farabella, as his team celebrated in the outfield after a team picture was snapped by many family and friends. "I know Rizzo's a real good hitter and if you keep it up, he'll take one out. I tried to keep it down, get some off-speed in there and keep it down."
Between innings, the Audubon sound system kept fans alive with songs from Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and others. You half expected the song "Anything you can do, I can do better," to be played, since that's the way the game was playing out.
After Buena (18-8) took the 6-4 lead in the top of the third, the Green Wave answered with three in the bottom as Zach Fadio (2-for-3, two runs) knocked in one and Matt Knetz (2-for-3) drove in two.
Buena recaptured the lead at 8-7 in the top of the fourth on an RBI double by Wade Battelini (two runs) and a run-scoring single by Joe Cifaloglio (3-for-4), but Audubon tied it on an RBI single by Pat Rich in its next at-bat.
"Anything you can do . . . "
When Buena scored twice in the fifth on an RBI single by Ken Miles and a rocket double by Marco Carolla (3-for-5) for a 10-8 lead, Audubon (15-7) was pretty much out of answers.
It cut the lead to 10-9 in the sixth when Rizzo reached base courtesy of an error, went to second on a wild pitch, moved to third on a groundout then went home when the throw to get him at third was wild.
But, as was the theme all day, Buena came right back with a run in the top of the seventh as Ney hit a sacrifice fly to drive in Miles (three runs) and give Farabella some breathing room. He shut the door in the bottom of the inning, getting the Wave 1-2-3 to iginite a wild on-the-mound celebration."
"We have a great bunch of hitters, they got it done when they had to," Farabella said. "I just wanted to get the win. I know I gave up a couple of runs, but I just wanted the game to be in my hands because I knew I could get the job done."
And, despite not being on the mound, his teammate had his back.
"I was pretty disappointed when we got down 4-0," said Ney, who has seven home runs on the season. "But that at-bat, I got down 0-2 and everyone just kept saying to put the ball in play. I got that pitch [a high fastball] and I just put everything I had into it."
Everyone on both teams did, including Rizzo, despite battling an illness he still can't identify (he had blood tests on Thursday). His legendary coach, Rich Horan, fought back tears when talking about his star player, who will play football at Colgate next season.
"He's a gamer, he comes out and plays," Horan said. "He's probably one of the greatest kids who ever walked the Audubon High School halls."
But yesterday belonged to Ney. A hero yet again. Even without throwing a pitch.
In other sectional finals:
* Top-seeded Maple Shade (18-4) trimmed second-seeded Pitman, 5-4, to take the Group 1 title, its first sectional crown since 1982.
* Timber Creek (15-6), the second-seed, ended No. 9 Clearview's stunning tourney run with a 9-3 win to capture the Group 3 title.
* Second-seeded Lenape reached the final with a couple of dramatic comeback wins, but the Indians (20-5) were overmatched yesterday in the Group 4 final, dropping a 12-2 decision to Toms River North. Lenape fell behind 7-0 after 2 innings and finished with only two hits. *