Nationals

Serena wins Brisbane title, Murray into final

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Serena wins Brisbane title, Murray into final

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) Serena Williams proved the break between seasons hasn't hurt her momentum, capturing her 47th career title with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on Saturday in the Brisbane International final.

Williams has won 35 of her past 36 matches, including titles at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the U.S. Open, the season-ending WTA championships and now the first event of 2013.

She already has won the Australian Open five times, and with the season's first major a little more than a week away, she's in good shape to add another title in Melbourne.

The Brisbane final was all over in 50 minutes with Williams dictating terms from the first break of serve in the sixth game.

``I always feel like I don't know how to play tennis when I play against you,'' Pavlyuchenkova told Williams at the trophy presentation.

The pair had traveled together on a training trip to Mauritius in the offseason but didn't really hit against each other at the time.

``But this was true what I said,'' the No. 36-ranked Pavlyuchenkova, who has won three WTA titles and more than $2.8 million in prize money, later said of her post-match assessment. ``When she's on fire, well, I feel like there is not much I can do. I mean, she's a great player and she deserves to win.''

Williams said she's been concentrating on being calm and composed, and has started to feel ``serene'' when she's in her zone on court. She's been feeling that way a lot in her comeback since a first-round loss at the French Open, her earliest exit from a Grand Slam.

``I was looking at a lot of old matches on YouTube, and I feel like right now I'm playing some of my best tennis,'' the 15-time major winner said. ``I feel like I want to do better and play better still.''

Pavlyuchenkova's post-match comment, she said, was ``a great compliment and a great honor for someone of her caliber to feel that way.''

In a tournament featuring eight of the world's top 10 female players, not one match in Brisbane featured two seeded players due to a series of injuries and upsets. Second-ranked Maria Sharapova withdrew due to an injured collarbone, and Pavlyuchenkova ousted a pair of top-10 players: 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the second round and fourth-seeded Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals.

Williams missed a chance to extend her 11-1 record against top-ranked Victoria Azarenka when the 23-year-old Belarusian withdrew a half hour before their scheduled semifinal Friday night due to an infected toe on her right foot. Azarenka was more concerned about being ready for the Australian Open.

The night off obviously didn't bother Williams, who went on a roll during a seven-game run from the middle of the first set until Pavlyuchenkova finally held serve in the fourth game of the second.

The 31-year-old Williams can regain the No. 1 ranking if she wins the Australian Open. If she does, she'll be the oldest woman to hold the top spot on the WTA tour. Chris Evert set the mark in November 1985, aged 30 years, 11 months and three days.

Williams' surge up the rankings started after the French Open, and also coincided with her starting to work with Patrick Mauratoglou's academy in Paris.

She attributes her comeback to ``spending a lot more time on the tennis court, I think, and doing a lot of things I love.''

``Everything just came together with the right timing with me wanting to do better, with me wanting to work hard, (Mauratoglou) being there and having everything to work hard, and having the same mind frame of playing matches for the way I like to play,'' Williams said. ``So I think life is about timing, and it was just good timing.''

In the men's draw, defending champion Andy Murray advanced to the final when fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori retired with an injured left knee while trailing 6-4, 2-0 in their semifinal earlier Saturday.

The Olympic and U.S. Open champion will next meet 21-year-old Grigor Dimitrov, who is starting to live up to his billing as a star-in-the-making by reaching his first ATP Tour final with a 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5) victory over Marcos Baghdatis.

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Nats' offense needs to get going to maintain control in NL Wild Card race

Nats' offense needs to get going to maintain control in NL Wild Card race

Playoff prediction formulas have the Nationals at above 90 percent to qualify, but at the moment it doesn't exactly feel that way. 

With their 4-2 loss to the Cardinals on Monday night and the Brewers' win over the Padres, the Nats are now only 1 1/2 games up in the NL Wild Card race. Milwaukee erased two games in four days.

The Nats are just a half-game ahead of the Cubs for the first spot. They want that for home field advantage.

The schedule has been unforgiving with this series against St. Louis the Nats' fourth straight against a division-leading foe. The Cardinals are in the drivers seat in the NL Central with an 84-66 record overall and a 26-11 mark since Aug. 7.

Offense has been the Nats' most glaring issue of late. Their two runs on Monday gave them only 10 total in their last four games. The lone win came Sunday when the offense broke out for seven runs to avoid a sweep against the Braves.

The Nationals are going to need to get their bats going to close the deal on a postseason berth. They have only 13 games remaining and all but three are against clubs with winning records. They have two games to go against the Cardinals, who boast the NL's second-best ERA.

Several Nats players have stood out recently for their shortcomings at the plate. Trea Turner, who went 0-for-4 on Monday, is now 5-for-31 (.161) in his last eight games. He's sporting a .284 on-base percentage in his last 17 outings.

Adam Eaton also went 0-for-4 against the Cardinals and is currently 2-for-15 going back to the start of the Braves series on Friday night. He's batting .163 in his last 16 games with a .229 OBP.

That's just the top of the order. Ryan Zimmerman is now hitless in three straight games. Gerardo Parra, who for most of this season has been a plus off the bench, is 3-for-46 (.065) going back to Aug. 13.

Then there's Yan Gomes, who despite getting a hit on Monday is now 3-for-20 (.150) in his last six games. Gomes has done an admirable job by catching nine of the last 10 games, but Kurt Suzuki's bat has been missed. Suzuki, who has 16 homers and 58 RBI in only 81 games, has been sidelined due to right elbow inflammation. 

The lack of offense has put undue pressure on the pitching staff. Stephen Strasburg wasn't sharp on Monday, but managed to get through five innings with only two runs allowed. The Nats' bullpen then gave up a pair of runs split between Sean Doolittle and Hunter Strickland in the seventh.

It wasn't pretty, but allowing four runs is manageable. Scoring only two runs is a major problem. The Nats are now 5-24 this season when they score two or fewer runs.

Scoring is what got the Nationals to this point, currently holding a playoff spot. Since May 24, when they began their turnaround at 19-31, the Nats have scored more runs than any other NL team. 

They have to get back to that and soon. A lot can happen in the next 13 games.

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Steelers bolster secondary by trading for disgruntled Minkah Fitzpatrick

Steelers bolster secondary by trading for disgruntled Minkah Fitzpatrick

According to a report from Ian Rapoport, the Ravens will have to deal with Minkah Fitzpatrick two more times this season.

The Steelers boosted their secondary by adding Fitzpatrick in a trade with the Dolphins on Monday night. The Steelers sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins in exchange for the cornerback.

The Dolphins, after their opening week loss to the Ravens, gave permission for Fitzpatrick to seek a trade. Then the Steelers came calling. 

Fitzpatrick is a second-year defensive back who was a 2018 first-round pick out of Alabama. He expressed frustration in recent weeks about playing out of position and the team's lack of direction. 

Against the Ravens, Fitzpatrick was torched in the secondary that allowed Lamar Jackson to throw for five touchdowns in a 59-10 win. 

The Steelers will most likely have Fitzpatrick fully integrated to the lineup by the time they host the Ravens on Oct. 6. They'll head to Baltimore on Dec. 29 in Week 17.

At 0-2, the Steelers are making a big gamble on Fitzpatrick and his future in the league considering what their 2020 draft pick could be.

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