CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Reds were in danger of dropping the first three games in their series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, so they turned to their ace to stop L.A. in its tracks.
Johnny Cueto pitched six shutout innings and struck out a career-high 12, lifting Cincinnati to a 5-0 victory Wednesday night at Great American Ball Park.
"He knew this one was very important to us," Reds catcher Brayan Pena said. "He never backs down from a challenge. The fact that we scored some runs for him helped him relax and use all of his arsenal."
Cueto (6-5) struck out five straight batters and seven of nine in one stretch. He allowed three hits and no walks, and he reduced his major-league-leading ERA to 1.85.
"They really worked on me," Cueto said of the Dodgers. "They made me throw a lot of pitches. I was trying to strike them all out. When I got that run support, I needed to tighten it up."
The Dodgers (35-32) were shut out for the third time this season. Cincinnati (30-34) earned its seventh shutout win.
The day started badly for Los Angeles and didn't improve much. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez was scratched due to shoulder tightness and left fielder Matt Kemp was ejected in the second inning.
"I know our guys were frustrated with the strike zone," manager Don Mattingly said. "You do get frustrated with the strike zone, but their guy's a handful."
First baseman Joey Votto, making his second start since coming off the disabled list, had a two-run double for Cincinnati, which defeated Los Angeles for just the second time in six meetings this season. Reds right fielder Jay Bruce went 2-for-4 with a solo home run.
"We have players that have credibility at this level," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "Even though we're off to a slow start, I still believe we can be a dynamic offensive club."
Four Reds relievers navigated the final three innings to complete the shutout.
With Cueto at 102 pitches, the Dodgers had runners on first and second and nobody out in the sixth, but Cueto escaped with two strikeouts and a lineout. He finished with 112 pitches.
Los Angeles loaded the bases against Cincinnati's bullpen with one out in the seventh, but Ramirez pinch-hit and grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu (7-3) allowed four runs on six hits in six innings.
Los Angeles batters clearly were displeased with home plate umpire Seth Buckminster's strike zone early.
Right fielder Yasiel Puig argued after he struck out looking in the first, then Kemp complained after being caught looking in the second. When Kemp continued to jaw from the dugout, Buckminster handed him his eighth career ejection and second this season. Scott Van Slyke replaced Kemp.
"Just emotion," Mattingly said. "What you really want your guys to be is passionate about playing and having success. Tonight it spilled over. He was frustrated last night and today it seemed to carry over a little bit."
Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon made a spectacular sliding grab of Pena's pop fly and then doubled up Brandon Phillips off second base to end the second inning.
Ryu, who took a perfect game into the eighth inning when he faced the Reds on May 26, issued a pair of two-out walks in the third. Votto followed with a two-run double, putting the Reds ahead 2-0. Phillips' single to right drove home Votto with the third run.
"The outing was summed up by the walks I gave up with two outs," Ryu said. "Pretty much just one of those days."
Cueto retired the first nine batters he faced before Gordon's single leading off the fourth, but Cueto picked Gordon off first moments later. It was the Reds' eighth pickoff this season, second by Cueto.
"It's been our recipe to success, scoring early, and having the bullpen keep it there," Price said. "Hopefully tonight was a precursor to things moving forward."
NOTES: Reds RHP Johnny Cueto now leads the National League in strikeouts (109), innings pitched (102), and ERA (1.85). ... Reds RF Jay Bruce's 46 home runs against left-handers is the most by any batter during the past five seasons. ... Dodgers RHP Chad Billingsley experienced a setback during a 31-pitch bullpen session Tuesday. "His 'pen didn't go real good so they stopped his rehab," said manager Don Mattingly, who didn't have further specifics. "I'm sure it's frustrating for him. Hopefully, it's a minor thing." ... Reds SS Zack Cozart felt fine Wednesday after being struck on the helmet by a pitch in the fifth inning Tuesday. "It was probably way worse-looking on TV," Cozart said. "It got me pretty good."