Then it got really tough.
A month of playoff action showed the young Rays how hard it is to achieve baseball's ultimate goal, while simultaneously revealing just how well-equipped they are for that task.
"It's totally different," said outfielder Carl Crawford, the dean of the roster. "It's definitely not the same. ... The emotions are a little higher in the playoffs."
If the trip to and through October did anything for the Tampa Bay roster, it raised expectations. An organization that has never had realistically high expectations can't help but embrace them now.
"I expect to be here every year," said rookie left-hander David Price. "It's probably good and bad that I've been here in the first 50 days of my career. Now I don't expect anything less. I expect to be back here next year. I expect to win this thing next year. It's been unbelievable."
Manager Joe Maddon loves hearing such comments from his charges. He knows they've seen something they'll never forget.
"A mind once stretched has a difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "I've always liked that. Our minds have been stretched. Everything about us has been stretched. I don't think our guys are ever going to be satisfied going home in October again.
"This whole experience has permitted us to grow. ... I believe this firmly -- our guys are not going to be satisfied without playing in October from now on. And that's a good thing. And that's all because of this group of people this year."
Tampa Bay made mistakes, but never wilted. And in fact, for most of the first two rounds, the Rays played near-flawless baseball. They encountered some bullpen and defensive lapses in the second half of the month. And their top two hitters, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena, went quiet for much of the five-game World Series against the Phillies.
But there was little doubt this team belonged. And there was no doubt within the clubhouse. The Rays proved to themselves that they can do this.
"It was us believing in ourselves," said pitcher Scott Kazmir. "That's what got us here. It wasn't us just flying under the radar and people taking us lightly. I think there might be a target on our back because of what we did this season, but we're always up for the challenge."
And perhaps if there's a moral to the story, it's that. They're not the little team that could. The Rays are the AL champions, holding a prize that the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, White Sox and nine other teams aimed for.
"It's a lot different," reliever J.P. Howell said of playing in October. "It's exciting, though. It's a good excitement. I think so many positive things going on can turn you, and you can start judging yourself or believing in your own hype. And that's something that's really good about our clubhouse. We didn't believe what people were saying, good or bad. We always looked at each other."
Maddon hopes, mostly, that his team absorbed his message. The players learned that what the organization and coach staff preach really does work. And he can't wait to start preaching it again.
"We go to Spring Training next year, with all this momentum built up from this season, validating all the concepts that we had put out there, and in order to sell the program," Maddon said. "I'm not just talking about the Major Leagues, I'm also talking about the Minor side of the program also becomes somewhat easier.
"So I'm really looking forward to that challenge, also. I'm so proud of our guys' effort level. ... I think we validated and created the Ray way of playing baseball. I'm very proud of that, and we have to make it better."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less