Dusty Baker has longed to get his starting lineup healthy, but once it is he’ll have to figure out how to use some of the reserves who have played so well during the season. (Orlando Ramirez/Associated Press)
Columnist

For months, Manager Dusty Baker has talked as if his life would become a garden of delights by Labor Day if he could just get back his full healthy Washington Nationals roster. Just last week he said that he felt as if it was “already written” that the miseries of this regular season were a preamble to a stunning October.

True, Baker is getting happy. Stephen Strasburg and Michael A. Taylor are back. Trea Turner and Jayson Werth, the Nats’ No. 1 and 2 hitters, who have missed nearly eight and more than 11 weeks, respectively, are playing rehab games in Class AAA. They are days away. The Nats even have a functional, perhaps even powerful bullpen for the playoffs.

But Baker is also about to have a new set of headaches. Don’t be too quick to say, “Those are good problems to have.” These are all tough, touchy decisions.

Should the Nationals keep Max Scherzer (neck pain) or Bryce Harper (bone bruise in his knee) on the disabled list for a week or two longer than those stars think is necessary, even if it costs Scherzer his third Cy Young Award or Harper a long-shot chance at his second MVP honor?

When Harper was hurt, Baker mentioned “10 days to two weeks” as a possible time frame. Scherzer has talked of hopes for a quick return after his 10 days in limbo are finished. But is either cheerful position-wise? Or even close to it?

Last year, Scherzer also had an August injury (finger strain). He pitched through the pain nine times, never went on the DL and won the Cy Young. But he never quite returned to 100 percent; the Nats lost both of his playoffs starts. The four runs he allowed in the early innings of Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers may have squandered a crucial chance for the Nationals. By January, his finger was diagnosed with a stress fracture.

Last summer, Harper toughed it out despite shoulder discomfort, though not a diagnosable injury; he never got back to full strength, either. He was no factor in the playoffs, with just three singles, a double and one RBI in five games against Los Angeles.

The current injuries to the Nats’ biggest stars aren’t the same as 2016, but they rhyme. Last year, the Nats listened to Scherzer and Harper and essentially let them manage their own injuries, as major stars often do. How did that work out?

That’s just the beginning of Baker’s decisions, plus input from General Manager Mike Rizzo.

When Werth and Turner return from the DL, should they automatically get back their old full-time starting jobs in left field and at shortstop? Or should they be put in platoons, or rotated in some fashion, so that Brian Goodwin (13 homers, .811 on-base-plus-slugging percentage) and Wilmer Difo (hitting .341 in 38 games during Turner’s absence entering Tuesday) can also stay sharp and become part of the Nats’ battleplan for October?

The Turner/Difo decision is particularly touchy. The ebullient Difo, whose nickname should be Espresso Difo, looks like he may become a good everyday middle infielder. But Turner, who had 35 steals in 68 games when he got hurt and has a .306 career batting average, still projects as a team-changing star.

Here’s the twist. For unknown reasons, Turner hasn’t hit big league left-handers well at all. Only one of his 21 career homers has come off a lefty; this year, he has hit .164 with no RBI in 61 at-bats against them. Meanwhile, the switch-hitting Difo has batted .392 against lefties. This screams playoff platoon against the Chicago Cubs and/or Dodgers, both loaded with left-handed starters.

But Turner, not Difo, is the electrifying, game-changing player. A pitch broke his wrist at the end of a four-game series against the Cubs in which Turner reached base 11 times, stole seven bases and got a frustrated Cubs catcher released. How do you bench that?

Even the Nats’ bullpen, in a bizarre way, is a conundrum. When Koda Glover and Enny Romero, who have both thrown 100 mph, return from the DL, where do they fit? Or do they fit, this year? Thanks to Rizzo, the Nats suddenly have a lights-out (smack my forehead) back end of the bullpen, assuming Ryan Madson (DL with a strained finger) returns to join Sean Doolittle and Brandon Kintzler. There’s also effective Oliver Perez and Matt Albers, as well as Joe Blanton, versatile Matt Grace, Sammy Solis and others. There are no 10-man bullpens.

The way some of the healthy, hardest-working Nats, like Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, seem to have just a click less bat speed recently, it’s tempting to suggest that the Nats, after grinding nobly all season at a 98-win pace, should take radical measures. Call up the whole Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs roster, play the minor leaguers until rosters expand in September and send the MLB squad to a cool Michigan resort.

That’s probably not part of the Basic Agreement, right? So the Nats are going to have to work through their brain teasers one at a time. That will be made more difficult because returning players are likely to fall into slumps because they don’t have their timing yet. Taylor may be an example. The first impact of the returning Nats may be that they don’t win as many games as Andrew Stevenson, Adrian Sanchez, Alejandro De Aza and the immortal Howie Kendrick, hitting .344 with the Nats entering Tuesday.

For the next two or three weeks, it may be irritating to delay the return of Scherzer or Harper, or to wait for the Turners, Werths and Taylors to find their strokes, or for the bullpen mob scene to work itself out. After so much deferred gratification for months, it may be hard to wait just a little longer. It may even be tough to watch a series in Houston this week, knowing that — a long shot for both teams — home-field advantage in the World Series goes to “best record.”

But with the stakes so high, patience will be required. This is, with a little luck and health, the best team Washington has had since at least 1933. The new bullpen, which still seems like a Rizzo magic trick, three rabbits pulled from thin air, has raised hopes even higher. Yet, if the Nats were in the same division as the Dodgers, they would have entered Tuesday trailing Los Angeles by 13½ games.

Lots of factors must fall in place for the Nats to have their most realistic October chance against a gantlet that may include the champion Cubs, the Dodgers and, in Baker’s dreams, a bruiser to be named later from the American League.

Since Adam Eaton was lost for the year in April, and the Nats’ bullpen was the worst in the sport for 100 games, the Nats have overcome new adversities almost weekly. Now, every week may bring new reinforcements.

That might seem like easy lifting, a reward for Baker’s work, Rizzo’s trading and the staunch efforts by those Nats left standing. But, like everything else this season, it probably won’t be easy at all.

Fascinating and exciting, yes. Easy, nope.