Simone Biles halfway to automatic Olympic berth at Trials; Gabby Douglas 7th

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Laurie Hernandez likes to joke that any gymnastics meet that includes three-time world champion Simone Biles is really just a race for second.

Hernandez is kidding, but not really.

For the last three years, there has been Biles and then everyone else. During the opening round of Olympic Trials on Friday night, “everyone else” drew as close to Biles as they have in a while, led by the electric 16-year-old Hernandez.

While Biles led the way as usual with a 61.850, Hernandez was just a point back at 60.850. The gap is sizable to be sure. It may even be insurmountable. Yet the fact Hernandez is in the same area code is a testament to her level of comfort on the biggest stage.

“You kind of have to act naive to it,” Hernandez said with a laugh. “This is just another meet. The arena is just bigger than usual.”

The stakes too.

While there were others — even Biles and defending Olympic champion Gabby Douglas — who had to tamp down the adrenaline or the mistakes (or both), Hernandez erased any lingering doubt about her readiness for Rio de Janeiro. Each of her scores on the four individual events ranked in the top five, including a beam routine that’s good enough to win Olympic gold on its own.

Heady territory for someone who turned 16 a month ago. Yet Hernandez seems to thrive on the pressure, pressure that ever so briefly seemed to get to Biles. The overwhelming favorite to win the all-around in Rio overshot her landing on vault and had to muscle her way through an awkward spin, a rare wobble during a skill coach Aimee Boorman said her star has been drilling “for weeks.”

Blame it on the adrenaline that comes with a spot on what could be the most loaded U.S. team in history on the line.

“What you saw was the adrenaline today,” Boorman said. “There were a lot of people that can’t reign in the adrenaline. I don’t think we need to change much of her gymnastics.”

Aly Raisman‘s continued her resurgence to the form she showed while winning three medals at the London Olympics while finishing third, followed by MyKayla Skinner in fourth.

National team coordinator Martha Karolyi is picking from an embarrassment of riches as she pieces together a squad that will head to Rio as the heavy favorite to win a second straight Olympic team gold. Karolyi, who is retiring after the games, said following the national championships last month that she already had five names in mind and doesn’t appear ready to break out an eraser just yet.

“The list is staying pretty solid,” Karolyi said. “Even with some mistakes here or there. We look for the potential and you look for the fact of what you see what the girls were able to do in the past also.”

Biles, Hernandez and Raisman appear to be in solid position while Douglas is still searching for the form that helped her win an eye-opening silver in the all-around to Biles at the world championships last fall. Douglas was only so-so at nationals and adjusted her coaching situation heading into Trials, with Christian Gallardo taking a more prominent role with less than a month to go before opening ceremonies.

Gallardo, who has served as Douglas’ co-coach along with Kittia Carpenter since Douglas moved to Buckeye Gymnastics in Columbus, Ohio two years ago, called the move a collective decision. Olympic rules only allow one personal coach on the event floor, and Douglas’ comfortability with Gallardo made the difference.

“We always thought it was a good idea, especially leading into trials,” Douglas said. “We do a lot of numbers and a lot of reps. He was always my coach in the gym and you can only have one coach on the floor. It just made sense.”

If there was any immediate impact on the decision, it didn’t show under the lights, a place where Douglas so often thrives. While Douglas was third on uneven bars, the event that first caught Karolyi’s eye five years ago, she was iffy elsewhere, her occasionally shaky night ending with a hop off the beam.

Douglas’ wobble may open the door for other candidates to slip into the group. Skinner put a strong 59.450, including top four scores on vault, beam and floor.

Madison Kocian and Ashton Locklear, who came into the trials as the leading candidate for the fifth spot, posted matching 15.750s on bars — the best of the night by far — with Kocian adding a steady 14.7 on balance beam.

There is no drama at the top, though there might be company for Biles.

The high-flying star hasn’t lost a meet since the summer of 2013 while cementing herself as the best gymnast of her generation. Though she’s still in a class by herself, she wasn’t quite as crisp as she was while winning her fourth national title in St. Louis two weeks ago. In a way, Biles is a victim of her own success. She’s separated herself from the rest of the world so completely that anything less than dominance seems like disappointment.

Biles, however, prefers not to look at it that way. She’s spent the better part of her life preparing for this moment. She’s not about to let it slip away. Yes she was a little amped on Friday. She’ll adjust.

“I feel like it’s a world selection camp except this one is a competition held publicly,” she said. “That’s fine. It’s like crickets out there (at selection camp). Here at least you have the crowd to pump it up. That’s what we train for.”

VIDEO: Why Gabby Douglas made coaching adjustment for Trials

Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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