HOUSTON -- The concerns came early in the second full week of September, when the Cardinals' grasp on prime playoff positioning began to wane in San Diego.

The Padres' three-game sweep seemed demoralizing at the time. It also exposed the frustrating side of a hot-and-cold offense that, despite impressive overall numbers, still often disappears in the most critical of spots.

In the context of the series, that offense was the talking point. And yet, it wasn't necessarily seen as the oncoming long-term liability. No, that was the rotation, which, really for the first time this season, was becoming worrisome.

Jake Westbrook, a 13-game winner, had just suffered an oblique injury. Jaime Garcia's troubled history while pitching on the road seemed a glaring issue again. There was optimism about Chris Carpenter's impending return, but hesitation in expecting too much, too soon.

Adam Wainwright, a year after a lost season, was fielding questions about potential fatigue. And after being banished to the bullpen only weeks earlier because of ineffectiveness, Lance Lynn was being called back out only due to need.

It seemed a bunch much closer to fracture than one on the verge of a roll. And yet, what a roll it has since been. A rotation that ranks third in the National League with a 3.63 season ERA has been even better as of late.

Since Sept. 13, the rotation has posted a 2.46 ERA. Opponents have been limited to a batting average of .207. Ten of those 13 starts would finish as quality ones (at least six innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs allowed), and the group has allowed significantly fewer hits (61) than innings pitched (80 1/3).

It's no shock, then, that team results have followed in suit. The club is 9-4 during that stretch and has increased its lead for the second NL Wild Card from one game to 3 1/2 games.

"I think they understand it all begins with them," manager Mike Matheny said of the rotation. "They've been answering the bell."

So what has been behind the timely resurgence?

The pitchers insist that it is more a natural shift back toward where the staff should have been all along. That's true to a point, but not to be undervalued are the forward strides taken by a few individuals, in particular.

First there is Garcia, who, though always touted for his natural ability, appeared at a crossroads following his three-inning start in San Diego. He had just been pounded (again) on the road, where his career ERA is two runs higher than it is at Busch Stadium.

The Cards seemed out of suggestions on how to shrink the discrepancy and went so far as to discuss removing Garcia from his next road start altogether. Matheny met with Garcia in a closed-door meeting, encouraging him "to keep pitching and to not let these distractions get in your way."

Garcia has responded exceptionally. He took the mound at Dodger Stadium and allowed one earned run in six innings. Garcia has since won a start at home and another with seven shutout innings at Minute Maid Park, a place where he had never before won. It has all put a hush to concerns about Garcia's mental fortitude on the road.

"All I can say about that is that I'm feeling good right now physically, and I'm worried about one game at a time, one pitch at a time," Garcia said. "I want to give the team a chance to win. That's all I can make happen."

Then there's Lynn, who lost his way in August, even though he leads the team with 17 wins. Persistent struggles landed Lynn in the bullpen, where he initially only continued to struggle.

Somewhere along the way, though, Lynn regained his focus, his mechanics and his stamina. He also found an extra coach in Carpenter, who encouraged Lynn to maintain a more composed demeanor when things went astray. It all helped Lynn regroup before he was called upon to take Westbrook's rotation spot.

And since? Well, Lynn has been as good as anyone. He's won all three starts since the move, allowing only two runs in 19 1/3 innings. Regardless of whether Lynn would be slotted into the rotation or the bullpen during the postseason, he again appears in form to provide a lift.

"It got me back in sync," Lynn said. "I was a little out of sync and everything was snowballing on me. I went down there and worked on what I needed to work on to getting back to being successful. It has worked so far."

Carpenter's return has also mitigated Westbrook's departure. Two starts into his season, Carpenter already appears to be finding his form. He's allowed two runs in each of those starts, barely giving the Cardinals room to critique him after a layoff of 330 days.

Insert these three into a rotation already stabilized by Kyle Lohse, the team's 2012 ace, and Wainwright, and the Cards have as formidable a five as any other team headed toward the postseason. And perhaps the timing of the coming together will be the foundation for another special October run.

"I think we're heading in the right direction that we want to be at this time in the year," Lohse said. "We're just getting confidence in what we've got, knowing we can all go out there and do the job. We talk a lot here, where we have such a close-knit rotation, about competition. If one guy is good, it's my turn to be better. This game can be like that, too, where it gets contagious and we can have runs like this."