On Sunday, less than a year after hosting its first postseason game, PNC Park is set for another first. More than 13 years after the ballpark opened its gates, it has drawn ESPN to town for a Sunday game under the lights.
The Cardinals and Pirates will meet in a nationally televised game to close out the three-game set in Pittsburgh. Although the Cardinals make regular Sunday appearances -- including one just a week ago -- this is a big deal in Pittsburgh, a city that last hosted a Sunday night game in July 1996.
Nationally televised games, a rarity during much of the franchise's 20 straight seasons with a losing record, have become more frequent in recent years. The Pirates see their selection to appear on Sunday as, in the words of manager Clint Hurdle, "tangible signs of changing."
"You don't play Sunday night on ESPN unless you've done something," Hurdle said. "You see more [broadcasters] here that you see on TV. We used to see them on TV, now they're in the clubhouse. The additional games throughout the season the national networks are picking up is another sign."
This series drew interest outside the Pittsburgh and St. Louis markets because of the tight division race in which the Pirates and Cardinals found themselves entangled last season. The two clubs then met in a National League Division Series that went the maximum five games.
"When I came to Pittsburgh, I asked, 'When was the last time 'Sunday Night Baseball' was from PNC Park?'" club president Frank Coonelly said. "I was told, 'Never,' and I was amazed and said, 'We've [got] to change that.' It only took me seven years. It's a great showcase, not only for the club and for the park but for the entire city."
Playing on Sunday night is hardly a novelty for the Cardinals, who have three such games scheduled this month alone. And with another in July, they're assured of appearing on "Sunday Night Baseball" at least four times this season.
What the Cardinals are most looking forward to is what will come after Sunday's series finale in Pittsburgh -- and that's a flight back to St. Louis. This series marks the end of a grueling road-heavy start to the season for the Cardinals, who will have played 26 of their first 38 games away from Busch Stadium.
Not since 1927 have the Cardinals had that many road contests in the first 38 games of a season. The reward for stockpiling all those airline miles early, though, is that they can look ahead to a stretch that will have them home for 19 of the next 22 games.
"I haven't heard complaints, so I think they've done everything they can to handle this as best they can," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of his players. "It has been a tough start. On the performance side, I do think we've left a lot on the table, and our guys would agree with that. Is that attributed to a tough schedule? I don't think completely. It's just we haven't clicked with the kind of baseball that we can play yet."
Cardinals: Molina to return to the lineup
Stuck in an 0-for-15 rut and trying to shake a cold that has affected several in the clubhouse during this road trip, Yadier Molina was held out of the lineup on Saturday. He is, however, expected back for the series finale.
"You can tell he's fighting to get something going positively on offense," Matheny said. "He's swinging the bat pretty well but not getting any results. He's a little frustrated."
Molina, who ranks second on the team with a .300 average, will be returning to a favorable matchup, as he is 8-for-22 with four doubles and six RBIs in his career against Pirates starter Charlie Morton.
Pirates: A co-op of leadoff hitters
The Bucs haven't lost any leadoff spark since Starling Marte was removed from that spot, which he had owned since his Major League debut in July 2012.
The three men who have shared the No. 1 spot the past eight games -- Jose Tabata, Josh Harrison and Travis Snider -- have combined to go 12-for-31.
It will probably be Snider's turn against Cardinals starter Shelby Miller on Sunday, when he will return to action after serving a two-game suspension for his part in an April 20 scuffle with the Brewers. In his most recent game, on Wednesday against the Giants, he went 2-for-3, with a triple and a two-run single.
• Actor Jon Hamm, a native of St. Louis and a Cardinals fan, will attend Sunday night's game to promote his upcoming film, "Million Dollar Arm," which is based on the story of two Indian pitchers (Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel) who signed with the Pirates in 2008. Hamm will serve as a guest analyst on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight: Sunday Night Countdown" prior to the first pitch.
• Andrew McCutchen (sore left foot), who missed Saturday's game, and Marte (tightness in lower back), who left it in the fifth inning, are both possibilities to return for the series finale.
• Pirates left-hander Wandy Rodriguez (inflammation in right knee), on the disabled list since April 21, has been penciled in to make his comeback start on Thursday in Milwaukee.
• Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta has hit safely in all eight games of this road trip. He is 12-for-32 during that stretch.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.