DENHAM SPRINGS – Natalie Parker bristled at the mere mention of the suggestion.
The thought of ever giving up the game of softball, which she first began playing at the tender age of 4-years-old, has truly pushed Parker to her limits, but never beyond the thought of actually ever letting go.
“That wasn’t an option,” Parker said emphatically.
Instead of taking the easy route and walking away from the game when her body started to challenge her quality of life on a daily basis four years ago, Parker was willing to seek solutions toward dealing with rheumatoid arthritis, a testament to the same tenacity that's been evident in her play on the field.
Parker, a Hinds (Miss.) Community College signee, remained true to her character; a fierce competitor eager to meet life’s adversity head on and the reward for Denham Springs’ senior ace pitcher has been an opportunity to live out a dream season going into Thursday’s key District 4-5A matchup with Walker.
“I’m having so much fun,” she said. “I’m definitely up the challenge. Coming into the season I knew I would be pitching most of the games. I’ve taken it and run with it.”
Denham Springs third-year coach Leslie Efferson-Yellot realizes the full scope of Parker’s impact on the Yellow Jackets, who have already exceeded their victory total of the 2018 season.
“They play behind her because they know she’s going to get the job done,” she said. “Then in return, she knows they have her back. If she misses a pitch, she knows someone will pick her up and make that play. It’s all the way around in every aspect of the game. The entire team is playing with more confidence. They definitely feed off of her.”
Parker’s thrived in her role as the team’s lead pitcher, a year after sharing time with Layne Miley.
Parker took a 13-2 record and 1.64 ERA into the Walker game where she hadn’t allowed an earned run in her last 34 innings of work.
With an improved change-up that’s helped to keep opposing batters off balance, Parker had piled up 133 strikeouts – including nine games of 10 or more - and limited opponents to less than .150 batting average.
Moreover, she’s pitched a pair of perfect games, a pair of 1-hitters and nine shutouts.
“I had very high expectations this season,” Parker said. “I knew that everybody was 100 percent into this team. Everybody worked hard in summer workouts. I knew from then this team was going to be great, but we’re even better than I could have thought.
“My defense is doing so great behind me, making great plays,” Parker said. “They’re always giving 100 percent. A lot of the shutouts that are happening are because the defense is so great.”
Parker’s certainly done her part, also swinging a productive bat where she’s batted third in Denham Springs’ dangerous lineup.
But it’s off the playing field where observers don’t see the efforts Parker must go through in order to perform basic tasks getting in and out of bed or tying her shoes.
Parker’s softball routine isn’t centered around simply throwing bullpens or taking batting practice, but it’s been her diligence in adhering to taking a series of medications that range from daily to weekly to periodic doctor's visits.
Whatever it’s taken for Parker to not only live out her own life, but more importantly, manage the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis to play softball, has been of little consequence.
“A lot of people don’t understand how much it’s affected me,” she said. “I handled it like it wasn’t a big deal. I just wanted to play; it’s fine. I wasn’t going to show I was in pain.”
For someone fortunate to grow up without any medical hurdles, Parker was sent scurrying for answers to a persistent pain that began intruding her body her freshman year.
She recalled experiencing difficulty bending her fingers and opening her hands. Simply getting out of bed became a chore with no clear reason why a 14-year-old would be enduring episodes of throbbing pain in her joints.
The answer finally gained clarity for the family after blood work was performed and discovered Parker’s inflammatory levels were high.
“They thought it was either Lupus or arthritis,” Parker said. “As soon as we found out it was rheumatoid arthritis, they put me on the medicine (methotrexate). I didn’t understand it at first. Why? How? It’s rare. I don’t know anybody else my age that had this.”
The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown, but the symptoms are evident – joint pain, stiffness, fatigue, muscle pain and weakness.
According to the Rheumatoid Support Network, RA affects 19 percent or 1.3 million people, but females over the age of 60 are thought to be at a higher risk.
Because of the additional stress on her arm, Parker didn’t pitch her freshman or sophomore years, remaining in the Lady Jackets’ lineup at first base and in the batting order.
“She’s always been in the game in some capacity,” Efferson-Yellot said.
In order to slip on a uniform and be with her teammates, Parker has followed a strict regimen that’s included taking an Enbrel shot every Tuesday for inflammatory conditions along with taking Methotrexate pills and folic acid every day.
Trips to a rheumatologist take place once every three months and blood work's performed, staples that become of paramount importance toward enhancing Parker’s quality of life, a fact she’s almost become oblivious to the past four years.
“It’s a regular thing to me,” she said. “I got used to it. I knew it would be a thing. When I found out, I knew I would have to deal with it. It’s under control for the most part.”
Parker’s made sacrifices along the way, bypassing her summer travel season three years ago to begin recovery ranked right up there with among the most painful she’s dealt with.
During her summer of inactivity Parker tried sitting idly by, often softly tossing a ball against a wall, wondering whether she would ever be able to do it full speed and more importantly, without pain.
She still vividly recalls being unable to properly grip a bat near the end of her freshman season, incapable of bending her fingers.
“I had such an urge to play softball, but I was in so much pain I was doubting softball because it would hurt so bad,” Parker said. “I just didn’t know if I wanted to take it anymore. As we found out, I could get on the medicine and that I could recover. I decided that I wasn’t stopping.”
It simply wasn’t in Parker’s DNA to do so.
Two full years without pitching, Parker made a triumphant return to the circle last season for Denham Springs, where after pitching pain free in the summer of 2017, she shared time with Miley and went on to earn first team All-Parish honors as a pitcher and first team All-District 4-5A laurels at the utility position because of her versatility.
In her final season, Parker has literally taken off, bolstered by an improved change-up to complement her trademark fastball, along with a self-assurance that’s helped her to embrace the big moments and thrive under pressure as the team’s ace pitcher.
Despite the increased role and number of innings pitched, it hasn’t taken a toll on Parker who’s only gotten better as the season’s unfolded.
“You can increasingly see her confidence growing as the season progresses, she sees the results of her hard work paying off,” Efferson-Yellot said. “It’s fun to watch that development of a player over a three-year period. That’s your paycheck as a coach.”
Said Parker: “Last year, I didn’t have this experience in pitching and didn’t know what to expect. During summer ball my teammates gave me a lot of confidence and told me I needed to pitch like that in high school. I was completely nervous in high school ball, the pressure used to scare me. Now it motivates me. I don’t feel any kind of nerves this year, I’m just pitching.”
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