Joe Kelly? Lance Lynn? This isn’t how the St. Louis Cardinals drew it up, but they’re once more right in the middle of things.

First, a tip of the hat to Cardinals GM John Mozeliak. When he first learned that Albert Pujols had signed with the Angels, he thought of Carlos Beltran. He saw him as the best available free-agent hitter and someone capable of, if not replacing Pujols, of filling a huge hole in the lineup.

Beltran has played well enough to inject himself in the National League MVP debate. His teammate, Matt Holliday, is in the mix, too. Allen Craig and David Freese have both been terrific. Even with Lance Berkman going on the Disabled List twice, the Cardinals lead the National League in runs, so offense hasn’t been a problem.

Still, if you’d told Mozeliak last winter that he’d get exactly zero innings from Chris Carpenter, he might have broken into a cold sweat. Had he known then what he knows now, he might have doubted the Cardinals could be back in contention. That they are. At 60-50, they’re 2 1/2 games behind the Pirates in the race for the second National League Wild Card berth.

Meanwhile, they’re six behind the Reds in the NL Central. The two teams play six more times, including the final three games of the regular season (at Busch Stadium), but it’s going to be difficult for the Cardinals to make up that many games against a team with so few weaknesses.

The Cardinals have survived this season because their farm system has again produced answers to problems. Lance Lynn, 25, has been a godsend for the rotation, pitching 133 innings and winning 13 games. He has never pitched more than 164 innings in his professional career, so his workload has to be a concern. Mike Matheny hasn’t allowed him to pitch more than six innings in his last four starts, and with every game so important, that may be all the relief he’s going to get.

Joe Kelly, 24, has also been huge for the Cardinals. He was a third-round pick in 2009 who flew through the system and made his Major League debut on June 10. He has won just two of 10 starts, but has a 3.14 ERA. He has turned in quality starts in seven of his last eight turns, and it’s hard to imagine where the Cardinals would be without him.

With Adam Wainwright and Kyle Lohse pitching well, with Jaime Garcia expected back soon, the Cardinals appear to have enough pitching to finish the deal. They’re a very nice mix of youth and experience, and Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist have done a nice job replacing two legends, Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan.

It’s not the way the Cardinals drew it all up last winter, but with 52 games left, they’re again right in the middle of things in the National League.

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