That beleaguered bullpen dug the D-backs a five-run hole after five innings -- just after Willis' withdrawal -- and delivered a four-run deficit after the top of the ninth. Well-timed offensive production only filled the former.
"I don't want to pile back on the bullpen," manager A.J. Hinch said. "We asked them to get 15 outs, and Atlanta made it difficult on us."
The last three outs proved most trying.
Against Arizona's Chad Qualls (1-3), Braves leadoff pinch-hitter Brooks Conrad almost single-handedly broke a 7-7 tie. The pinch-hitter singled, stole second base and slid into home plate safely on pinch-hitter Brian McCann's well-struck single through the right side of the infield. Atlanta tacked on three more runs in the final frame.
The D-backs still managed to bring the potential tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth -- twice, in fact. But, with the bases loaded, Braves' closer Billy Wagner retired Rusty Ryal and Chris Snyder, who became the 15th and 16th D-backs to strike out (Justin Upton, Adam LaRoche and John Hester each whiffed three times). The empty at-bats, of course, led to Arizona's 2-for-12 mark with runners in scoring position.
"We're long past it being a concern; it's always been a concern," Hinch said of the inordinate amount of strikeouts. Arizona had a Major League-leading 580 through 61 games, or 9 1/2 per contest. "What's the remedy? We've got to make an adjustment and find a way to put the ball in play. ... We take a lot of big swings with two strikes, and we like it when they go out of the ballpark. But, more often than not, it hasn't been that way lately."
The D-backs actually had an early 2-0 lead against Atlanta starter Tommy Hanson, but Willis gave it back almost immediately. The lefty ran his scoreless-innings streak to 9 1/3 before allowing a sacrifice fly and an RBI single in the fourth.
Control, both with his pitches (49 of 95 were strikes) and his body (a career-high two balks), proved cumbersome. Willis walked six batters, tossed two wild pitches and even threw behind Martin Prado.
Splitting the nail on his left middle finger, a recurring nag, while facing Chipper Jones, the game's third batter, only exacerbated his outing.
"Have to do a better job of throwing strikes to a team that is in first place and knows how to put a nail in the coffin when you walk guys," he said. "It came back to bite us."
That's because Arizona's relief corps had to enter the game early, and it struggled. Cesar Valdez allowed five runs in the fifth, all with two outs. During that frame, Stephen Drew just missed a knuckling liner off the bat of Yunel Escobar. Blaine Boyer walked in the fifth run charged to Valdez before inducing Troy Glaus' inning-ending groundout.
Baseball's worst bullpen allowed nine earned runs, but Juan Gutierrez, who entered the game with an ERA north of 10, held the Braves in his two-inning stint, his first scoreless appearance since May 23.
As it has done at times this season, Arizona's lineup fought back. Chris Young, who entered the game on a fifth-inning double-switch, led off the seventh with a home run, his 10th. And an Atlanta error aided the D-backs' game-tying rally in the eighth. Two batters after Atlanta reliever Jonny Venters' errant throw to second base on a potential double-play ball, former Braves player Kelly Johnson pulled a 1-1 Venters fastball down the first-base line for a three-run double, his 20th of the season.
"I was just looking for something to put in play hard," said Johnson, who in seven games against his former club this season batted .367 with two home runs, four doubles and eight RBIs. "I squeaked it over the bag by about an inch, it was just well-placed.
"It was nice for us to come back and tie it and have a chance to do some damage at the end of the game there, too, but we ran out of bullets, I guess."
By splitting with their visitors in this week's four-game series, the D-backs lost their season matchup with the Braves, 4-3. Now 12 1/2 games back in the National League West, Arizona (24-37) hosts the St. Louis Cardinals for a three-game set this weekend.