Writing on the wall for punchless Sox

BOSTON -- The not-so-magic number for the Boston Red Sox these days is 10.

That's how many games the Red Sox are trailing the first-place New York Yankees in the American League East standings, a season high. It's not much better in the wild-card race, where they are 7½ back of the Tampa Bay Rays with just 26 games remaining.

The bottom of the hourglass is almost full on the Red Sox, especially after they dropped both games of a doubleheader to Chicago White Sox on Saturday at Fenway Park. Boston lost both games by the score of 3-1 and its offense was completely kaput.

"This game mirrored the first one," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said after the nightcap. "We didn't have a lot of opportunities, and when we did, we didn't do enough with it."

Case in point: The Red Sox were trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning of the night game when they used a little small ball to push across the tying run. Then, with no outs and runners on the corners, the heart of Boston's lineup -- J.D. Drew, Victor Martinez and David Ortiz -- was retired in order.

"We had something going and had the middle of our order come up and couldn't get anything more," Francona said. "That was obviously a big part of the game. When you don't have a lot of opportunities, you need to cash in when you can. We couldn't."

The pitching staff has done its job of late, but pitching can only take you so far.

"They did great today, man," said Red Sox shortstop Marco Scutaro, who drove in both of Boston's runs on the day. "Unfortunately we didn't score runs for them. When we play as a team and we put the offense and defense together we get good results, but sometimes you pitch and don't hit. It's kind of tough to win games like that."

In the matinee, Clay Buchholz suffered his first loss since July 21, snapping a career-high seven-game undefeated streak after he worked five innings and allowed only two runs on six hits.

John Lackey pitched his butt off in the nightcap and had nothing to show for it. The right-hander worked seven innings and allowed three runs (one earned) on four hits with seven strikeouts.

Offensively, the Red Sox combined for only two runs on 13 hits, including only two extra-base hits over the 18 innings. In fact, Boston has scored three runs or less in seven of its last nine games.

"It is what it is, guys," Lackey said. "We've got a lot of guys grinding and a lot of guys filling in some spots and keeping us in a race. But if you're losing the kind of caliber people we've lost this year, I mean, it's going to show up eventually."

It has in a big way.

"We're in a tough spot," Lackey said. "We're in a tough division with two quality teams in front of us, but we've got a lot of pros in that room who will keep on battling and keep doing it the rest of the way."

The day was summed up on a single play in the third inning Saturday night. Lackey was cruising with one out and a runner on third in a scoreless game. The White Sox's Gordon Beckham hit a chopper to first baseman Victor Martinez, who quickly made the throw to the plate.

It should have been an easy out, but catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia dropped the ball and Chicago had its first run of the game.

Francona described the play afterward, saying Saltalamacchia had his arms away from his body, which allowed Carlos Quentin to jar the ball loose. Martinez, starting at first base in the nightcap, made a nice throw to the plate and Saltalamacchia positioned and braced himself for a hit before he dropped the ball.

Lackey was standing on the grass in front of home plate and slammed his hand into his glove in frustration.

"I was definitely surprised. Salty was surprised it happened, too" Lackey said. "Actually, I'm not surprised by a lot of things this year to be honest with you."

Francona called Lackey the "hard-luck guy" after the loss, and while the veteran right-hander wouldn't admit as much, he has in past outings said he's been "nickel and dimed" a lot this season.

"You never want to give into it," he said. "You've got to keep grinding, keep going out there and competing. I feel good where I am as a pitcher moving forward. When we're at full strength I like my chances."

The Red Sox haven't been at full strength for the majority of this season and won't be for the rest of the year. Still they're trying to stay positive even though the outlook gets bleaker and bleaker the closer to the finish line they get.

"You have to. What choices do you have? You have to stay positive and keep playing," Scutaro said.

Francona always -- ALWAYS -- lives by the philosophy of one game at a time. He's always preached that to his teams and the majority of the time it has worked. He's not deviating from that plan, but the double-digit panels in the games-back column on the scoreboard in left field at Fenway Park tell a different story.

"We'll show up in the morning and see if we can win," Francona said. "If we start wasting energy thinking about it; we're not in the best situation, so the best way I know to remedy that is to win. We'll try to do a better job than we did today."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.