LOS ANGELES -- Joey Votto may have looked foolish in all three of his at-bats against Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw.
But when it mattered most, the reigning National League MVP made the Dodgers' bullpen pay.
Votto's go-ahead eighth-inning single off Scott Elbert helped lift Cincinnati to a 3-2 win Tuesday at Dodger Stadium, one night after he tagged the Dodgers' bullpen for a crucial three-run homer.
The Dodgers wasted Kershaw's seven strong innings, giving up a run in both the eighth and the ninth and failing to rally late as they dropped their second straight.
Kershaw had thrown 104 pitches, and the left-hander said he felt strong enough to return for the eighth, but with a pinch-hitter and two righties due up in front of the lefty Votto, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly opted for Blake Hawksworth.
"I really wanted to keep guys off the bases in front of Joey and [Jay] Bruce," Mattingly said. "The thinking there was to keep those righties off base."
Instead, the opposite happened. Hawksworth allowed two hits in one-third of an inning. He gave up a leadoff single to Miguel Cairo, who later scored on Votto's single.
"I'm always disappointed, I always want to keep throwing," Kershaw said of being removed before the eighth. "I always want to pitch, and Donnie knows that, but at the same time, I'm not gonna question his judgment. He trusts the bullpen just like I do."
But Mattingly acknowledged the Dodgers' beaten-up bullpen has become a concern recently.
"We're playing games that are so tight that it's really getting magnified," Mattingly said. "When the games are so close, that one run makes a difference."
It certainly made a difference Tuesday. The insurance run the Reds scored off Mike MacDougal proved huge as the Dodgers scored a run in the ninth on a James Loney single, before Rod Barajas popped up to short to end the game with the potential tying run on second base.
Losing with their ace on the mound was certainly disconcerting for Los Angeles, but one bright spot was Kershaw performing well deep into the game. After struggling in the sixth and seventh innings of his last two starts, he held the Reds at bay before he was removed.
"Any time I can get through the first two innings I feel pretty good about it," Kershaw said. "It was just weird giving up runs late the last two games, so I'm glad I got through seven today."
Kershaw allowed just one run on four hits in his seven innings, and perhaps his most impressive outs came against Votto. The Reds first baseman offered a pair of very weak two-strike swings on his two strikeouts, then flailed at a curveball in his third at-bat, lifting a lazy fly ball to left.
"He didn't throw any curveballs [the last time I faced him]," said Votto, who took Kershaw deep 10 days ago in Cincinnati. "I looked at video before the game and I don't think he threw a curveball in a while. I saw two pretty good ones that I made two outs on. He's a tough guy. I thought he was actually throwing harder today than in Cincinnati."
Kershaw's brilliance went for naught, however, as Johnny Cueto matched him for Cincinnati. After allowing a first-inning unearned run, Cueto was lights-out, and when the Reds broke through in the eighth, he was the benefactor, picking up his fourth win.
The Dodgers got to Cueto early with speed. Rookie shortstop Dee Gordon led off the game with a single to center and scored from second when an errant throw on a potential double-play ball bounced only a few feet away from first base. Votto began to sprint after the ball but then realized he didn't have a chance to get the speedy Gordon and stopped.
Gordon, who also stole a base, bunted for a hit and forced the Reds into two errors, said his mind-set when on the bases is simple: "Every base I can go to, get to it."
For the second consecutive night, Gordon's speed was on full display, and Mattingly took notice.
"With Dee, there's speed and then there's a different gear," he said. "That's a gear you don't see very often."
The Dodgers' fans took notice, too, giving Gordon an ovation after Cueto had to step off the rubber simply because Gordon's lead was too big at third.
"With that speed, if he puts the ball in play, it's havoc," Mattingly said.
Gordon impressed in the field, too, with several crisp plays to his right and a perfect relay throw to the plate that prevented the Reds from taking the lead in the third inning. Left fielder Tony Gwynn swiftly played the carom on a Scott Rolen double before throwing to Gordon. His relay throw hit Barajas, who had the plate blocked perfectly with his left shin protector, in the mitt for a quick tag.
That kept the game tied at 1, and neither team would score until Votto stepped to the plate to face Elbert, against whom he was 0-for-2 with a pair of strikeouts.
"He was difficult in Cincinnati and he's a tough left-hander," Votto said. "He's got two good pitches, and I happened to get a good pitch to hit."
AJ Cassavell is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.