Cueto missed one turn in the rotation because he served a seven-game suspension for his actions during the Aug. 10 melee against the Cardinals. To make the night a little worse for the Reds, St. Louis won its game over the Giants earlier in the day to close within 3 1/2 games in the National League Central race.
During his exile, Cueto worked one simulated game and had one bullpen session and plenty of time.
"It felt weird the first inning. It wasn't the same as throwing in the bullpen," Cueto said.
The first sign of trouble in the first inning was the radar display. Cueto was reaching 96 and 97 mph, but he is usually more formidable when he takes a little off his fastball to 92-93 mph. After Manny Ramirez whiffed on a 96 mph fastball to give Cueto a runner on first base and two outs, trouble really started.
Three straight walks were issued to Jay Gibbons, Matt Kemp and Casey Blake to force home a run. Cueto needed 33 pitches to get through the first inning.
"He just couldn't find the strike zone," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "That's the one thing we feared after that long layoff. He might have been overthrowing some and lost his rhythm. Then they started hitting the ball out of the ballpark."
The dangerous Ramirez was playing his first game in a month for the Dodgers after being out with a calf injury. But as he went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, others did Cueto and the Reds in.
There were two outs in the second inning when Ryan Theriot hit a 0-2 Cueto pitch to left field for a solo homer, only his second of the season. Cueto also was one strike from finishing next batter, Andre Ethier, who blasted a 1-2 pitch over the center-field fence for a 3-0 Dodgers lead.
Gibbons and Kemp made it four home runs in a string of five batters when they began the bottom of the third with back-to-back long balls to put the Reds in a 5-0 hole.
"When you don't have your control, you have to throw it over the plate," Baker said. "When you throw it too fat over the plate, guys know what to do with it, especially guys like Ethier. I think every pitch they hit was a fastball."
Cueto set a career high in homers allowed and became the first Reds pitcher to give up four long balls since Justin Lehr surrendered five against the Astros on Sept. 16 of last season.
"Everyone knows that we're always a better team with Manny in the lineup," Ethier said. "We're excited to have him back. They'd rather take the chance with me. He has however many thousands of RBIs and home runs and stuff. You definitely see a difference with that."
In five previous second-half starts, Cueto had allowed only three homers. His record dropped to 11-4 with a 3.62 ERA after a second straight shaky start.
Against Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley, the Reds scored their first run in the third inning when Drew Stubbs walked, stole second base, went to third on catcher Brad Ausmus' throwing error and scored on Joey Votto's RBI groundout. A big chance was missed in the fifth when the Reds opened with two singles, but reliever Mike Leake couldn't get a sacrifice bunt down and struck out before Brandon Phillips flied out and Stubbs struck out.
"We still had some action a number of times," Baker said. "It might have been a different ballgame if we got the bunt down, moved runners over. When playing catch-up, you have to do all the right things."
In his first relief appearance of the season, Leake gave up two runs in the Dodgers' fifth to make it 7-1 before the Reds made it interesting with two runs in the sixth, including Ramon Hernandez's RBI double, and two more in the seventh. But this was one hole that proved too deep.
"You get spoiled by winning," Baker said. "When you're winning a lot, you think you're going to win every game even though you know you're not. The main thing is we're in position to win the series here, which we haven't done in a long time. Every streak is going to end at some point in time. You have to start a new streak."