As the final two weeks of the season kick into gear, most of the post-season berths are still in play. Three of the six divisions-the AL East, AL Central, and NL East-feature races where the margin is two games or less, as does the race for the NL wild card. Adding to the drama is a flurry of games decided in the late innings, by timely hitting overcoming leaky bullpens. Consider Sunday’s activity:

  • In New York, the Mets‘ substitute closer, Luis Ayala, was unable to protect a 4-2 ninth-inning lead against the Braves. Acquired from the Nationals during the August waiver trading period, Ayala arrived sporting a 5.78 ERA and a 1-8 record that suggested he’d been left holding the bag all too often, but with Billy Wagner shelved for the year and set-up man Aaron Heilman struggling, the desperate Mets pressed him into closer duty.

    Ayala had converted seven out of his first eight save opportunities before Sunday, when interim manager Jerry Manuel rode him a lead too far. Ayala failed to retire a batter, yielding singles to Casey Kotchman and Kelly Johnson and then a three-run pinch homer to Greg Norton. After his departure, Pedro Feliciano surrendered a run via a walk, a single, and an RBI double by Gregor Blanco, and was charged with another run when Corey Miller hit a sacrifice fly off of Brian Stokes. Final score: Braves 7, Mets 4, a loss that trimmed New York’s NL East lead over the Phillies to one game.

  • Speaking of the Phillies, in the first game of their doubleheader against the Brewers, Milwaukee’s lefty specialist Brian Shouse came into a 3-3 tie with nobody out and a man on first base. The ensuing string of events that led to a four-run inning capped by Shane Victorino‘s homer not only cost the Brewers crucial ground in the NL wild-card race, it cost manager Ned Yost his job.

  • On the South Side of Chicago, in the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Tigers, White Sox relievers Scott Linebrink, Boone Logan, D.J. Carrasco, and Octavio Dotel conspired to blow a 7-0 lead over the course of the seventh and eighth innings, with Dotel surrendering a grand slam to Marcus Thames to knot the game. That’s pretty much par for the course for Dotel, who’s allowed 12 homers in 62 innings, or 1.7 bombs per nine. Luckily, his teammates had the opportunity to face a pitcher even more homer-prone, as Kyle Farnsworth came on in relief of Bobby Seay in the bottom of the eighth to yield a grand slam to Dewayne Wise, Farnsworth’s 15th long ball allowed in 59 2/3 innings (2.3 per nine). The White Sox held on to win, pushing their AL Central lead to 1½ games over the Twins.

  • In Arizona, the Diamondbacks missed a critical opportunity to make up a game on the Dodgers in the NL West race when Corey Patterson, who came into the game hitting .204/.237/.335-good for a .199 EqA, the lowest mark among all major leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances-stroked a 10th-inning solo home run off of Jon Rauch. It was the Diamondbacks’ eighth loss in nine games, and the fourth time in five games in which they surrendered the winning run during the opposing team’s final at-bat. Rauch, another former Nationals reliever acquired during the waiver period, was responsible for two of those final four losses; he’s yielded a 6.33 ERA since being acquired. That figure looks stellar compared to teammate Brandon Lyon, who took the loss on Wednesday, then gave up two ninth-inning runs that nearly cost the Snakes another game on Friday and did cost Lyon his job as closer due to a 10.90 second half ERA.

That’s just one day’s slate of broken dreams. With the pressure of the playoff races increasing on a nightly basis, some bullpens are running out of gas just short of the finish line, compromised by injuries, ineffectiveness, and (as in Yost’s case) managerial incompetence. I have four similar bullet points left over from a half-written piece dated September 1, a column that fizzled with my laptop battery as I headed west for vacation. Three of the ostensible contenders mentioned in that one-the Marlins, Cardinals, and Yankees-have seen their postseason odds plummet below one percent since then, in particular because the incidents I cited at the time weren’t isolated instances of late-game combustion. Florida’s Kevin Gregg, for example, took the loss four times in a two-week period, failing to protect three leads and one tie. Had he converted those saves, the Marlins would be tied with Houston, three games out of the wild-card spot, with postseason odds closer to eight percent instead of 0.4 percent-still a long shot, but a long shot with a pulse.

With burning bullpens such a hot topic, it’s worth viewing team relief performances through the prism of our relief stats, particularly Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL) and Fair Run Average (FRA), which do a much better job of accounting context in which each team’s relievers have performed. Here’s a first- and second-half breakdown of WXRL, with the teams ranked by the latter; keep in mind that the unusually long first half (an average of 95 games per team) makes for smaller second-half WXRL totals and a much narrower spread between teams. Through Sunday:

Team       1st   2nd  Total
Astros     4.7   5.9   10.6
A's        5.8   5.5   11.3
Angels     7.5   5.0   12.5
Rays       9.5   4.5   14.0
Dodgers    6.8   4.3   11.0
Yankees    7.3   4.1   11.4
Jays       4.5   4.0    8.6
Royals     5.2   4.0    9.2
Marlins    4.1   3.9    8.0
Phillies   8.8   3.6   12.5
Rockies    2.3   3.5    5.8
Red Sox    3.1   3.0    6.1
Cards      1.8   2.6    4.4
Brewers    4.1   2.6    6.7
ChiSox     7.2   2.4    9.6
Nats       1.9   2.1    4.0
Cubs       6.0   2.0    8.0
Pirates    5.3   1.7    7.1
D'backs    3.5   1.4    4.9
Padres     4.3   1.4    5.6
Reds       4.7   1.4    6.0
Giants     3.1   1.2    4.2
Indians   -2.7   0.8   -1.9
Mets       6.1  -0.4    5.7
Tigers     3.2  -0.6    2.6
Rangers    5.3  -0.9    4.4
Orioles    3.8  -1.0    2.7
Twins      8.1  -1.1    7.0
Braves     5.3  -1.1    4.2
Mariners   3.0  -1.9    1.1

While this ranking isn’t tremendously revealing at first glance, the fates of various contenders do stand out. The Astros have the majors’ best second-half WXRL; that 5.9 is a monster number to have accumulated in a short period of time, and it’s a key factor in Houston’s re-emergence in the wild-card race. Or it was at least until Hurricane Ike forced them to Miller Park sans bats. Jose Valverde (1.504 WXRL and 2.05 FRA since the break; all stats cited within this section are for the second half unless otherwise noted), LaTroy Hawkins (1.355 WXRL since being acquired from the Yankees in a footnote of a deal on July 31), and Chris Sampson (1.200 WXRL) all rank among the top 25 relievers in WXRL in the second half.

On the individual level, we’re not working with huge sample sizes here, but the second-half WXRL numbers do highlight the kinds of effective patterns of usage that teams settle into for their playoff runs. To put these numbers into context a bit more, note that they’ve been accumulated in about one-third of the season. A mental multiplication by three is helpful, with the understanding that last year, 34 relievers-just over one per team-finished with full-season WXRLs of 3.0 or higher, and 59 finished with WXRLs of 2.0 or higher.

Getting back to the rankings, the Rays, who lead the majors in WXRL overall, have been strong in both halves, with Grant Balfour ranking eighth in the majors since the break (1.856 WXRL) while helping to pick up the slack for the injured and largely ineffective Troy Percival (-0.274 WXRL, 8.89 FRA). The Dodger bullpen has been surprisingly good despite the loss of Takashi Saito and some shakiness from Jonathan Broxton, with Cory Wade (2.073 since the break, sixth in the majors, not to mention a microscopic 0.30 FRA in that span) emerging as a key weapon out of the pen-and yes, that’s a rookie reliever, for those of you scoring back in New York.

Further down the rankings, the Brewer pen has been in the middle of the pack during both halves rather than awful, weighted down by the early-season performances of Eric Gagne and the since-departed Derrick Turnbow (a combined -0.599 WXRL before the break), though the second-half performances of David Riske (-0.178 WXRL) and reclamation project Seth McClung (-0.310 WXRL) have certainly been part of the problem lately. The Diamondbacks spent the second half delivering bad news in the ninth inning for far too long via Lyon (-0.179 WXRL), though Rauch (-0.582 WXRL as a Diamondback) has been an even more malevolent force. Cub fans might sweat the ranking here, and while it’s largely the result of some bad work by Bobby Howry (-1.036 WXRL) offsetting strong second halves by Carlos Marmol (2.154 WXRL, fourth-best in the majors) and late-July call-up Jeff Samardzija (0.857 WXRL), Kerry Wood‘s performance (0.111 WXRL, 5.22 FRA) doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

But it’s really the Mets and the Twins who’ve been getting the worst relief work since the All-Star break. While that hasn’t cost the former their spot atop the NL East yet, it has certainly prevented them from fortifying a solid lead. This is a unit that’s running on fumes; Heilman, Feliciano, Duaner Sanchez, and Scott Schoenweiss-four of the team’s top five relievers in terms of appearances-have all put up Fair Run Averages of 5.93 or higher in the second half. That’s before considering the fact that the loss of even a less-than-mint Billy Wagner limits the Mets’ chances to snap out of it, since the drop-off between him and every other member of the bullpen is so high. With the rotation putting up a 4.99 ERA this month while averaging 5.9 innings per start, the pressure on an already compromised unit is only going to mount.

As for the Twins, the relative lack of support in front of Joe Nathan is unusual for a Twins team, and it may have cost them the opportunity to overtake the White Sox. Nathan (0.071 WXRL, 2.58 FRA) has been less than his dominant self since the break, but besides him and lefty Craig Breslow (0.116 WXRL and a tasty 1.75 FRA), all of Ron Gardenhire‘s other go-to guys-Matt Guerrier, Dennys Reyes, Jesse Crain, Brian Bass, and Boof Bonser-have WXRLs below replacement level since the break. Ouch.

Speaking of the White Sox, their second-half bullpen woes become apparent if we focus on bullpen Fair Run Averages instead of win expectancy:

Team        1st    2nd  Overall
Jays       3.59   3.15   3.42
Astros     4.50   3.51   4.16
Brewers    4.73   3.57   4.34
Dodgers    3.40   3.71   3.51
A's        3.63   3.77   3.69
Angels     4.23   3.84   4.08
Rockies    4.81   4.08   4.54
Rays       3.40   4.21   3.69
Red Sox    4.62   4.22   4.47
Phillies   3.15   4.40   3.60
Marlins    4.45   4.45   4.45
Cards      4.59   4.49   4.55
Nats       4.99   4.51   4.82
Reds       4.14   4.73   4.35
Twins      4.23   4.74   4.40
Yankees    3.72   4.75   4.09
Pirates    4.76   4.79   4.77
Padres     4.79   4.79   4.79
Cubs       4.18   4.86   4.40
D'backs    4.49   4.88   4.63
Mets       4.46   5.15   4.69
Royals     4.18   5.16   4.56
Giants     4.88   5.38   5.05
Tigers     4.76   5.64   5.11
Mariners   4.14   5.66   4.70
Rangers    5.42   5.84   5.56
Indians    5.36   5.95   5.58
ChiSox     3.23   6.19   4.38
Orioles    4.11   6.62   5.08
Braves     3.77   6.82   4.95

Accounting for the base-out situations which they’ve inherited and bequeathed, White Sox relievers have allowed in excess of six runs per nine innings in the second half, the third-worst mark in the majors. Bobby Jenks (3.22 FRA in the second half) and Carrasco (3.42) have been solid, but Dotel (7.14), Matt Thorton (5.26), and Logan (18.80, albeit in just nine innings) appear to be dousing themselves in gasoline as part of their regular warm-up routines.

Another team whose second-half performance might be cause for concern is the Phillies. Although Brad Lidge is still the majors’ individual leader in WXRL, and though the team still leads the league in that category, the Phils’ second-half increase in FRA is the fifth-largest in the majors, and the second-largest among contenders. What mitigates their case at least somewhat is that it isn’t the mainstays who have been having the most trouble, it’s the patches Charlie Manuel has been forced to apply due to decreasing depth. Among those with more than 10 second-half innings, only Ryan Madson (4.80 FRA) is above 4.04, while the likes of James Happ, Rudy Seanez, and Les Walrond have combined for their 8.21 second-half FRA in just 22 2/3 innings-a few bad outings here and there.

Elsewhere in the rankings, again the second-half performances of the Cubs, Mets, and Diamondbacks stand out as subpar, while that of the Twins doesn’t look as bad as it did in the previous context; it’s not how many runs they’ve given up, it’s when. Speaking of which, check who’s third in the majors: the very same Brewers bullpen that’s drawn so much criticism of late. Most of the time they haven’t been that bad.

Most of the time… but not all of the time. As with comedy, timing is everything when it comes to bullpen performance-timing with regards to the inning/score combination in a ballgame, and to a team’s post-season hopes late in the year. Even the best of our relief statistics don’t capture what amounts to a “season leverage” context, and if we’ve had to apply small-sample caveats in sifting through the rubble to focus on second-half performances here, it seems egregious to break things down further to highlight the performances of the last week or two. At a certain point we’re better off reducing our focus to bullet points, bullet points that could come to represent the fatal holes in a given team’s post-season dreams. Stay tuned for the growing casualty list.