Four teams still alive for two spots, and the Braves could play any of them — or the Cardinals — in the first round.

With a 2 1/2 game lead on the Dodgers, who lost last night, the Cardinal eventuality is remote. One Braves win, or one Dodgers loss, and the Braves will clinch the second seed in the playoffs. Whew.

If the season ended today, several teams would lose a lot of money because the last three or four games of the season would be cancelled. Anyway, the Astros, suprisingly, have rallied to take the NL Wildcard lead. They’re a half game up on the Giants and Cubs, even in the loss column. If the Astros or Cubs win the wildcard, the Braves would play them. If the Giants did, the Braves would play the Dodgers. If the Giants caught the Dodgers but the latter hung on for the wildcard — it’s very unlikely now — the Braves would play the Giants.

Let’s forget about the Giants and Cards and concentrate on the three likely opponents.

The Astros are the hottest of the three teams right now, and feature the best starting pitcher in the league who isn’t on a pathetic Diamondbacks team, Roger Clemens, who if the Astros win the WC outright would pitch twice in a five-game series. On the other hand, they’re the Astros, and the Braves have owned the Astros over the years, especially in postseason. And I have to point out that Biggio’s career postseason line is .130/.242/.148 and Bagwell’s .174/.367/.174.

The Cubs, of course, play the Braves for three games starting tomorrow. You probably don’t want to play the same team 6-8 times in a row, especially when they must have won at least two of the first three. The Braves definitely owe the Cubs for last year. Interestingly, as Joe Sheehan writes today, the Braves are a bad matchup for the Cubs because Braves pitchers allow few homers, and the Cubs’ offense is heavily homer-oriented. Last year, as I’ve written before, the Cubs were a bad matchup for the Braves because the Braves were a heavily righthanded-hitting team, reliant especially on three righthanded power hitters, and the Cubs’ righthanded power pitching took those guys out of the series.

The Dodgers feature a rather shoddy starting rotation right now — one good starter, Odalis Perez, one average one, Jeff Weaver, and a gang of nothings. They do have a good, broad-based, offense and a good bullpen, and the second-best hitter in baseball in Adrian Beltre. The Braves hit Eric Gagne as well as anyone does, and in addition Gagne has some shoulder problems. Something to keep in mind.