When the Tri-City ValleyCats' bus pulled into Brooklyn's MCU Park on Wednesday, manager Stubby Clapp was furious.
Clapp marched his players out to the bullpen and ripped into them for breaking curfew the night before. Like a Marine Corps drill sergeant, the former Major Leaguer barked at his squad to get down on the ground and prepare for the worst.
"Then I proceeded to punish them with pushups," said Clapp, "and then I popped some bubbly on them and the celebration was on."
Clapp's elaborate hoax quickly turned into a scene the group of Astros prospects won't soon forget. Confusion the night before over New York-Penn League standings and a magic number to clinch the Stedler Division left Clapp and his team in the dark after the 'Cats beat Brooklyn, 5-2.
The win, although they weren't aware, clinched the division crown and a playoff spot.
"I had no idea we had clinched," Clapp said. "I was still planning on winning another one."
The confusion stemmed from a Connecticut Tigers game that was canceled by rain earlier this season. And with the Tigers 15 1/2 games back, many thought the ValleyCats weren't quite close enough to clinch. However, Connecticut will not make up the rainout and will end up playing one fewer game than Tri-City. Essentially, both teams have 15 games to play, and the Tigers are 15 1/2 games back.
"I knew we were three games, that was the magic number, and we won last night, so it looked as if it was down at one. And I left it at that," Clapp said.
Clapp and the ValleyCats' front office finally realized Wednesday morning that they'd clinched. The team tweeted around 1 p.m., "According to calculations the 'Cats have already clinched the division."
That put Clapp into action. How would he break the news to his players a day late?
"I mulled on it all morning with my trainer. I thought,
'I've gotta do something, they worked so hard. We need to figure out how to make it kinda special in some way,'" he said.
Thus, the broken curfew plan was put in place.
"They were down doing the pushups -- I usually just fine them money, hit them in their pockets -- but this was something a little more extreme, maybe they'd understand how mad I was," Clapp said. "They bought it hook, line and sinker."
Then, Clapp broke out the bottles.
"They were happy, they got it," he said. "They figured it out."
"First time 'poppin bottles at the field!" pitcher Lance Ray wrote on Twitter.
The celebration -- a unique Minor League moment in itself -- will be a highlight of Clapp's second season managing the Astros affiliate.
"It's been a lot of fun. The best part is that it's a great group of guys on and off the field," said Clapp, who spent 11 seasons in the Minors and played 23 games for St. Louis in 2001. "They come to work and play every day, and as a manager, they come with that attitude, they're ready to learn and get better. And that's all you can ask for."
Tri-City built the league's best record (44-17), thanks to a 2.78 team ERA that ranks second in the league. The ValleyCats also lead the circuit with a .279 batting average and 353 runs scored.
"You never know what to expect when you get a brand new group of guys right out of college," said Clapp. "We had a couple returning guys from last year and you have an idea what to expect out of them, but a whole new group, you go into the year fighting and working and hope for the best. And that's what's happened so far."
One particularly bright spot has been catcher Tyler Heineman, who leads the league with a .362 average.
"He's obviously our quarterback, our catcher. He has a lot of energy, he's a lot of fun to play around," Clapp said. "He's also the butt of a lot of jokes, he's a character and all the guys enjoy playing with him."
Closer Blake Ford leads the league with 14 saves, and outfielder Andrew Aplin -- now with Class A Advanced Lancaster -- helped the 'Cats get off to a hot start and still ranks second in the league with a .348 average.
"He was key in the beginning, he had a big bat for us, played a steady center for us," Clapp said of Aplin. "He did a really nice job on the basepaths, too."
And then there's Aaron West, who is 6-1 with a 1.61 ERA.
"He's been awesome," Clapp said. "He's taken the ball every time and challenged hitters. He's been a nice surprise on the mound for us."
The success at Tri-City (based in Troy, N.Y.) gives some hope for Astros fans that help is on the way, at least a few years down the line. With Houston owning the Majors' worst record this season, Clapp said the crop of talent at the lower levels in the Minors is real.
"Definitely, and with [first-year owner] Jim Crane and the people he's brought in, there's high expectations. And this is a small exmaple of hopefully what's to come," Clapp said.
As for what's to come the rest of this season, Clapp said the team isn't finished. The league's best record and home-field advantage in the postseason is on the line.
"We still have to play and finish on top," he said. "Hudson Valley is right behind us and we want to finish with best record and home-field still. So we have a lot to play for."