For most of the past six seasons, the Houston Astros have made winning look easy. They were scary talented. Cocky, too, with over-the-top dugout celebrations, including one in which they imitated Olympic bobsledders. Did we mention the majestic bat flips and fist-pumping strikeout celebrations? Whatever else you can say about them, the Astros turned getting under an opponent’s skin into an art.

They also cheated, at least for a time. If you didn’t like that they were stealing signs—banging trash cans, for heaven’s sake—on their way to winning the 2017 World Series, the Astros wanted you to know they didn’t give two rips for your opinion. As the boos got louder and louder on the road, hometown Houston fans embraced the team even more, and through it all, the thing that didn’t change was the winning: six consecutive playoff appearances between 2017 and 2022, including four World Series appearances and championships in those bookend seasons.

No MLB team was more disliked by players or fans. In recent seasons, as George Springer and Carlos Correa departed in free agency and team owner Jim Crane fired manager A. J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, infielders José Altuve and Alex Bregman became the last remaining faces of the cheating scandal, and they heard about it every time they stepped into the batter’s box on the road.

Many baseball fans from other cities have been waiting for the season in which time—and karma—would catch up with Houston. This is that season on many levels, as the defending champions have suffered through injuries, questionable front office decisions, and underperforming stars. The team’s response to adversity, however, has been almost as remarkable as the hundred-win seasons and postseason thrillers. The Astros have kept winning. Just when it looked like the ship was sinking, the Astros were transformed into upstart overachievers with a cast of characters many outside Houston would not know. 

This group is a reminder that the improbable little sports stories are sometimes the best. Where the Texas Rangers once seemed on the verge of running away with the American League West, the Astros are back to within two games of first place as MLB approaches the All-Star break on Monday. “This club, they like to win,” Astros manager Dusty Baker gushed to reporters this past weekend, as his team beat the first-place Rangers in three out of four games. “And they know how to win. No matter who we put out there, we expect them to do the job, even though they might not do as good a job as the people they’re replacing. But just do what you’re capable of doing and do what it takes to help us win.”

The Astros have not had their best player, Yordan Álvarez (out with a strained oblique muscle), for the last month. They’ve lost their second-best player, José Altuve, for two significant stretches of the season. Outfielder Michael Brantley has yet to play a game. Bregman and last year’s World Series MVP Jeremy Peña have struggled mightily at times. The pitching rotation that once included future Hall of Famers Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke now has J.P. France, Shawn Dubin, and Brandon Bielak.

But who needs big names? The Astros have MLB’s second-lowest earned run average, thanks in large part to a bullpen that has been both outstanding and overworked. (Houston’s four high-leverage relievers, Ryan Pressly, Bryan Abreu, Phil Maton, and Hector Neris, are in the top twenty in appearances among American League relievers. A pace like that is probably unsustainable for a team with playoff aspirations.

Of the familiar position players, only right fielder Kyle Tucker has been both healthy and productive. One of last season’s World Series heroes, Chas McCormick, has been very good. Into the spotlight with them have stepped Yainer Díaz and Mauricio Dubón and Corey Julks.

Baker shows up for work and figures out how to piece a lineup together and make the most of a starting rotation that will have to be upgraded by MLB’s August 1 trade deadline. Otherwise Baker, the Astros, and that great bullpen will likely be toast by October. “Something’s always happening to somebody,” Baker said of his injured players. “We’re fortunate that we have good personnel to take their place. We just can’t go too far in the future.”

Last weekend in Arlington, Houston won three out of four games against the Rangers. Although the team’s pitching has been stellar, the offense remains a concern despite a strong-enough statistical output that puts the Astros in MLB’s top ten in runs. Staff ace Framber Valdez missed his scheduled Sunday start to rest a sore ankle, prompting Baker to grant Dubin—who attended four colleges and signed with the Astros for $1,000 after being drafted in the thirteenth round in 2018—his first career start. Baker was hoping for three innings. Dubin gave him four, and after the Astros scraped out a 5–3 win, the clubhouse vibe was giddy.

“I can’t give enough credit to Dubin,” McCormick told reporters. “He did great today. We kind of fed off of him. Being a little injured like we are, it was huge to get two wins here, but hopefully we get another one.”

Altuve sought perspective. “I know we’re missing some good players, but we also have a lot of great players,” he said. “It seems like it always happens, one different guy every day doing big things for our team. We’re really happy about it.”

Two days later, it was Altuve who exited the lineup after feeling pain in his side during batting practice. He missed the Astros’ first 43 games with a fractured thumb in what has become a nightmare of a regular season. But when Altuve hasn’t been able to play, Dubón has stepped in and played the best baseball of his four-year MLB career.

“It’s tough to take, but you have to move on,” Baker said. “You have no choice. You feel terrible, especially for the injured player and the team, but you have no choice. What choice do you have other than ‘Hey man, next man up.’ These guys have done a pretty remarkable job of next man up.”

Despite the Astros’ feel-good vibes and can-do spirit, worries abound that this depleted roster might sputter before the team has a chance to make another deep postseason run. The young starting pitchers are on a pace to smash their career-high workloads, and rookie general manager Dana Brown will be one of at least a dozen executives competing to beef up a rotation at the trade deadline. Brown was hired as general manager in January after an off-season in which Crane had the very bad idea to moonlight as his own general manager after firing the previous GM, James Click.

Crane signed now-36-year-old free agent first baseman José Abreu to a three-year, $58.5 million contract, and until recently, Abreu has been one of baseball’s least productive players. Crane brought back Brantley despite the outfielder missing the final three months of last season and undergoing shoulder surgery. Brantley has yet to take the field this season, and there’s no indication he will. Crane’s three-year, $34.5 million deal for reliever Rafael Montero has not worked out, either. His biggest mistake by far was not signing a free agent starting pitcher to replace 2022 American League Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. Crane mistakenly figured he had enough pitching, and maybe he did—right up until José Urquidy, Luis Garcia, and Lance McCullers got hurt.

Somehow, though, the Astros appear to be headed for a seventh straight playoff appearance, and perhaps an October matchup against the Rangers. Isn’t this why we love sports in the first place? When everything goes wrong, some teams simply have the ability to persevere or dig deep or summon whatever cliché you prefer.

At times Baker has seemed almost beside himself as his new cast of characters has figured out one way after another to win games. This week, after rookie infielder Grae Kessinger homered in just his fourth major league start, Baker was asked once again about getting contributions from so many new faces. “That’s what they’re here for,” he said. “They’re not here to paint, they’re here to play and to perform. I’m giving them all a chance because we need them. We need them, and they need to play well.”