Kershaw (11-10) allowed both runs in seven innings, but was outdueled by fellow 22-year-old Mat Latos (14-5). Latos was scratched from his scheduled start Monday with the flu but was healthy enough to dominate the Dodgers on three hits over seven innings, striking out 10 with no walks.
"Kershaw was terrific, but it's been our story, lack of offense," said manager Joe Torre.
The Dodgers scored one run off Latos in seven innings and missed a chance against the Padres' bullpen in the eighth when center fielder Chris Denorfia made a diving catch of pinch-hitter Jay Gibbons' bid for extra bases after Jamey Carroll's leadoff pinch-double.
"If the ball gets by him, we've got two runs and we're in position to win the game," said Torre. "That's why they are where they are [first place]. They make plays like that."
And why the Dodgers are where they are, which is 10 games back in the National League West and Wild Card races. San Diego, which came into this series on a 10-game losing streak, now has a two-game win streak.
Are the Dodgers a below-.500 team?
"That's probably pretty accurate," said third baseman Casey Blake. "Certainly we're not a .500 team, but we haven't played well enough to deserve or have a better record."
The only Dodgers run was scored by newcomer Scott Podsednik, who doubled in the sixth inning and was singled home by Rafael Furcal.
Loney, Blake, Ethier and Kemp -- the middle of the Dodgers' batting order -- went 2-for-16 with nine strikeouts.
Over the first five weeks of the season, Ethier struck out 11 times. He struck out 30 times in August and already has 10 whiffs in six September games. Torre said Ethier might get the night off Wednesday.
"He's very frustrated right now," said Torre. "When you're not hitting, it's tough to go up there with the same confidence. He's fighting himself."
Ethier was one of three arbitration-eligible players the Dodgers signed to multi-year contracts, Kemp and Broxton being the others, each having a disappointing season.
Meanwhile, Kershaw has stepped forward as the staff ace, with Billingsley's solid season restoring his value to the rotation. Kershaw has a staff- and personal-high 183 1/3 innings pitched with four or five starts remaining to reach the 200 mark.
"That's any pitcher's goal," he said. "You see [Roy] Halladay throw that in August. But it would be a cool milestone, for sure."
Kershaw lowered his ERA to 2.99, striking out six with one walk. The Dodgers have scored 17 runs total in his 10 losses. He's 1-3 over his last six starts, despite a 2.27 ERA.
"I feel great physically, like I did in August," he said. "I'm excited to finish out the season good."
Adrian Gonzalez was involved in the Padres' first two runs, going the opposite way against Kershaw both times. He led off the second inning with a single to left, was singled to second by Miguel Tejada and Nick Hundley's single loaded the bases for Aaron Cunningham, whose sacrifice fly scored Gonzalez.
In the third inning, Denorfia singled, was bunted to second by David Eckstein, and after Ryan Ludwick struck out, Gonzalez doubled to left to score Denorfia.
"I wish I could have that one pitch back to Gonzalez," Kershaw said. "Just got too much of the plate. He showed he'll be aggressive against me."
"He was good," San Diego manager Bud Black said of Kershaw. "It was two young pitchers with good stuff tonight. He continues to improve on control and command. Tonight, his ball-strike ratio was nice."
Latos is 9-1 since June 4, the only loss coming against the Dodgers on Aug. 3. He set a Major League record by allowing two runs or less in 15 consecutive starts of five or more innings.