BALTIMORE - They have been thrown together to rescue a franchise staggering through an agonizing run of futility. There isn't an undeniable All-Star in the bunch, and the majority of them have never experienced the feeling of contributing to a winner.

This might not be most talented or esteemed group of Baltimore Orioles over the past decade, yet this team just might be the most spirited.

And that means something, because the clubhouse at Camden Yards has long been a place where optimism dies.

Closer George Sherrill, one of five players obtained from the Seattle Mariners in the February trade for Erik Bedard, had every right to lament leaving a potential contender for a team in full rebuilding mode. But the lefthander has found happiness in Baltimore, where the formula for success begins with chemistry in the locker room.

"I think it's better. Everybody in here is great from top to bottom," Sherrill said. "There's a lot of guys in Seattle that weren't personable or anything. It could have been just the situation. You're a high payroll team that's kind of hovering in second and third and you're trying to battle and battle. Here it just seems like everybody's pulling for each other."

With Sherrill leading the way, the Orioles have gotten off to a surprising 23-20 start. Going into last night's games, the Orioles were in third place in the American League East, 2 1/2 games behind Boston. Playing the role of a full-time closer for the first time in the major leagues, Sherrill is 1-0 with 17 saves.

Just as impressive is Baltimore's ability to come from behind. There once was a time when the Orioles figured an early deficit would surely result in an inevitable defeat; 10 straight years without a winning season can do that. But this team has a league-leading 11 wins when trailing by at least two runs.

"Whether we're up 2-0 in the fourth or whether we're down 5-0 in the sixth, we still feel like we're still going to give ourselves a chance to win," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "That's probably a little different then it has been the last couple of years."

The Orioles already have three wins when trailing after eight innings after going 4-87 in that situation in 2007. During a 4-1 homestand that ended Sunday, Baltimore twice beat Boston after being down 3-0 and rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat Washington.

"When we get behind, there's a feeling that it's no big deal," said Aubrey Huff, who is tied for the team lead with 23 RBI.

"Last year, we were down 2-0, it felt like here we go again. We don't have that feeling this year. It's just a feeling of, as much as we've done it this year, coming back, it's almost a habit now. There's no panic. It seems like we're down almost every game and then come back in the late innings."

Baltimore lost to Washington, 2-1, on Sunday, but until the game ended with Huff on first base, the Orioles never abandoned hope of mounting a rally.

"That's been reflected in our comeback wins," starter Jeremy Guthrie said. "We feel 100 percent confident we can score one or two runs in the ninth inning. That's important. More times than not you don't get those runs because of the team's closer, but we have done it enough times to feel it is possible any day."

The feeling began in spring training, when Dave Trembley began his first full season as a major league manager by telling each player there was no reason why the Orioles couldn't win - regardless of the roster overhaul that included the departure of their best pitcher (Bedard) and All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada.

"All they needed was some direction and constant reminders of how to do things," Trembley said.

With one-quarter of the season completed, the results have been far better than most anticipated.

The Orioles were off yesterday, then start a six-game trip to Yankee Stadium and Tampa Bay.

"We're having a good time this year. We had no expectations, and certainly you guys didn't give us any expectations," Huff said. "We have nothing to lose. It's go out there and play, have fun and leave it all out on the field." *