SARASOTA, Fla. — The dream start to 2022 for left-hander Bruce Zimmermann fell away, slowly at first and then in one fell swoop.

The Orioles starter, who grew up attending games at Camden Yards, made his season debut there and recorded three straight quality starts before the teetering began. He then managed a 7.32 ERA between April and June and found himself in Triple-A Norfolk, looking for steadier footing.

Zimmermann is back in major league spring training, back on the mound with an Orioles jersey on. He toed the rubber Monday in a 14-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays that unraveled after his two innings were complete.

After that outing, Zimmermann emphasized his goal to return to the starting rotation for the long haul. But looking around, he knows how difficult a task that will be.

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Before spring training began, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said there were 12 rotation candidates. Zimmermann is one of them. But there are five spots, ample arms who found success in the big leagues last year and only so many innings to prove yourself.

His first two frames of the spring, despite including a mistake to Wander Franco that resulted in a two-run homer, were a solid beginning on a path that should carry through March in Florida.

“You guys can see the amount of starters we have down here,” Zimmermann said. “A lot of guys last year did a lot of good things for some decent stretches, and they brought in some other guys. … Everybody is aware of the competition and what this camp is about, but I think guys are really excited about it as well, because the last five guys standing are really going to be a good competitive product.”

For Zimmermann to be part of that last five, he knows his results will have to look more akin to the beginning of last season in the majors, when he allowed five earned runs in 19 1/3 innings. Zimmermann felt he got back to that level near the end of the season, too, pitching for the Norfolk Tides.

He allowed three runs or fewer in nine of his final 10 appearances for the Triple-A affiliate, but his path back to the majors was blocked by a rotation in Baltimore that had found its stride. It was good for the Orioles and unfortunate for Zimmermann, but he spent the offseason adjusting several of his pitches to maximize his opportunity come spring training.

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He wanted to separate the movement of his four-seam and two-seam fastball — his two-seamer has more sinking action; the four-seamer cuts slightly. He also modified his slider grip to rediscover a pitch shape he had a few years ago, hoping to induce more swings and misses.

With those and other secondary pitches, Zimmermann feels he can save his change-up for critical moments.

“Developing the curveball the last season and a half especially, it has gotten better, it has gotten to a strikeout pitch for me,” Zimmermann said. “I think just having the consistency of both [the change-up and curveball] to get to the bottom and top of the zone when I want definitely takes pressure off the change-up, and then, obviously, it makes it a little better because they don’t see it as often.”

On Monday, Zimmermann faced a lineup that featured most of the names that will break camp with Tampa Bay this season. Franco jumped on a slider Zimmermann left over the plate, which was a mistake, he said, after nibbling around the edges at the beginning of the at-bat.

But beyond that, Zimmermann retired five of the next six batters he faced.

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“His second inning, he threw the ball much better,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “First outing, so just good to see him out there and get two innings out of it.”

The rest of the pitching staff collapsed, including two homers off right-hander Joey Krehbiel and four runs off left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez. But Zimmermann saw Monday as a positive first step into a pivotal camp competition.

“Getting back to a little bit more of a grinder mentality and winning a position back,” Zimmermann said. “I’m really excited with how I’ve been doing in camp so far and looking forward to building up and showing what I can do.”

A painful exit

Outfielder Anthony Santander suffered a knee contusion and is considered day-to-day, Hyde said, after he took an 85-mph pitch from right-hander Garrett Cleavinger off his left knee in the sixth inning. He crumbled to the ground and stayed there for a few moments before limping back to the dugout with Hyde.

“That’s all I know at this point,” Hyde said, “but I think he’s okay.”

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Between innings, Santander gingerly walked down the foul line toward the clubhouse with a trainer. He’s set to join the Venezuelan national team for the World Baseball Classic on March 6 and is coming off a career-best 33-homer year.