Having finished first the last five seasons, the Dodgers down the stretch are playing to the level of competition. Head to head against the other National League West contenders, they won three of four against Arizona and two of three against Colorado.
But they dropped two of three to the Mets and to avoid a sweep at Great American Ball Park, Los Angeles needs a win on Wednesday, when third baseman Justin Turner is expected to return to the starting lineup after being rested on Tuesday until a pinch-hit appearance in the seventh inning.
"They pretty much beat us in every facet of the game," said manager Dave Roberts. "Our guys understand these games are important to win, but we just can't get a win here."
But Roberts disputed the suggestion that letdowns against lesser quality clubs signal overconfidence, even though he agrees the roster talent indicates "on paper we should beat" these teams.
"I don't think it's a matter of complacency. If anything, it might be a matter of trying too hard," said Roberts. "If you look at the grinding of at-bats versus going out of the strike zone, the games we don't score it's more a matter of going out of the strike zone. It's not about just rolling out the baseballs and expecting to win. I just don't think that's the case."
There are 17 games remaining in the regular season. Joc Pederson, one of the few Dodgers who got to Reds winning starter Luis Castillo with a home run and single, acknowledged the sense of urgency.
"You've got to find a way to win when things aren't going well and we've got to do a better job of that, including myself," said Pederson. "There's some type of added pressure compared to a normal game. We're going to have to treat it like a playoff game, I guess. There's only so many left and the Diamondbacks and Rockies are right there with us. We're going to try to figure it out and play good baseball."
Cody Bellinger complimented Castillo, who struck out seven of the first 11 batters and at one point retired 15 consecutively.
"He was throwing whatever he wanted in any count," Bellinger said. "His fastball and change were both really effective. When you're throwing 98 with movement and got that changeup moving in any count, you tip your cap. That's good stuff right there. We were watching video and that's the best he was throwing his changeup all year. When you face guys like that, you have to take advantage of guys on base and we haven't been doing that lately."
Meanwhile, Brandon Dixon, Scott Schebler and Jose Peraza -- sent by the Dodgers to Cincinnati in 2015 in a three-team trade for Frankie Montas, Trayce Thompson and Micah Johnson -- combined to go 5-for-11 with two homers, a double and all three runs scored against losing pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu.
"Any time you can hit a home run, you're happy," said Dixon. "But to play against some of these guys, it's always a little extra to hit a home run against them."
"The win is the most important part. But, yeah, you kind of have a little more of a chip on your shoulder," said Schebler.
Scooter Gennett, who had four hits Monday night, was held to only two singles, a walk and an RBI. He's batting .727 against the Dodgers this year. Seven. Twenty. Seven (16-for-22).
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Although Turner did not start, Roberts saved him for the key pinch-hit at-bat of the game with two out in the seventh inning, down by two and the bases loaded on a double by Yasmani Grandal and walks by Alex Verdugo and Yasiel Puig. But Reds reliever David Hernandez got Turner to bounce to shortstop for an inning-ending forceout.
SOUND SMART With Pederson's 20th homer, the Dodgers extended their Los Angeles record streak of homering in consecutive games to 19. The franchise record is 24 in 1953 in Brooklyn.
HE SAID IT "For some reason, we can't solve the riddle of their pitching. We really can't. All six games against these guys, they've really just dominated us. I don't know if we've had a lead." -- Roberts
UP NEXT Ross Stripling (8-3, 2.61 ERA) makes the 9:35 a.m. PT start in Wednesday's series finale against Anthony DeSclafani (7-4, 4.56) and the Reds at Great American Ball Park, although it should soon turn into a bullpen game. Stripling came off the disabled list to face two batters in relief Friday night and gets his first start since returning from a sore lower back. He's only expected to pitch three innings or 45 pitches, Roberts said.
Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001.